Susan Svrček performs an All-American program that explores a wide spectrum of themes from the universal to the personal. She discusses her program in this interview.
Q. You open your program on a high note with two works by Henry Cowell.
A. The Hilarious Curtain Opener and Ritournellewere written as some of the incidental music for a play by Jean Cocteau entitled Les Maries de las Tour Eiffel. They are complimentary, yet contrasting pieces. The Hilarious Curtain Opener is just what the title suggests; a short piece, partially influenced by folk elements. It runs along in a humorous fashion, filled with well placed wrong notes and rhythmic quirks. The Ritournelle is quite different. It is sensitive, stark and very beautiful. Cowell wrote it using his “elastic form”, giving the performer an opportunity to use various combinations of the material, similar to putting a patchwork together.
Q. It isn’t often that we hear piano works by William Grant Still. Tell us about Seven Traceries.
A. Seven Traceries are very personal and delicate pieces written in a simple, elegant and individual style. William Grant Still, who was not a pianist himself, wrote these pieces for his second wife, pianist Verna Arvey. Each evokes the impression of things that no longer are, but in the past had been seen by the eye. You can imagine what they sound like from their titles but the titles were suggested by the music and written afterward. Still was a man of deep faith and believed that music should communicate deeply. These pieces seem to reflect his view of the world and his place in it. Seven Traceries were written with a purity and spiritual essence that touches the depths of the heart.
Q. Why did you choose Ives’ Sonata No. 2 (“Concord, Mass.”, 1840-1860) for your program?
A. The “Concord” Sonata is one of the greatest piano pieces of the 20th Century. Ives carved new ground with this work. It speaks to history and the human condition, and is especially relevant during these times. Meanwhile, Cowell, Still and Ives all use folk elements in their music. They also leave a certain number of decisions up to the performer. Still doesn’t put pedal marks in the score and dynamics are sparse. Cowell’s “elastic form” is chancy but not by chance. He gives the performer several patterns or suggestions to use but the choice is left to the performer. In the Ives work everything is relative. For the most part, he doesn’t use time signatures or key signatures and he incorporates phantom notes that are to be heard as overtones. There are very few bar lines throughout the piece. This flexibility gives the artist great freedom in making interpretive decisions.
Q. How does Ives approach the challenging themes of history and the human condition in Sonata No. 2?
A. This piece is both universal and personal. Ives permeates the piece with “the” four-note motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and these four notes become the essence of the piece. They speak to the soul of humanity looking for answers and knowing they will find them. The Emerson movement is a sprawling movement that evokes the feeling of Emerson standing on top of a mountain, giving one of his orations to the Universe. The music explores the spirituality of people globally. The Hawthorne movement is concerned with a single community. The fantastic inner realms of the imagination run wild and free with tunes of marches, church hymns and parades coming out of nowhere. Then that four-note theme comes in with “the answer.” The Alcott movement takes us into one family’s home. It describes the house and activities within. Folk tunes and hymns are played on the spinnet piano and again, we hear the reassurance evoked from the four-note motif. The Thoreau movement looks to the inner exploration of one single man. We see that the universal and the personal are all interconnected and ongoing. The piece ends in a quiet way, suggesting the simple and eternal forward movement of the individual life.