Haydn Rediscovered with Depth and Angst and Joy on the Upper West Side
Saturday night at a house concert on the Upper West Side, pianist Nancy Garniez treated a hushed, intimate crowd to an eye-opening performance of miniatures from Bartok’s Selections for Children, Vol. 2 and followed with an even more fascinating trio of Haydn pieces. Garniez, a musicologist as well as a pioneer in sonic science, is all about context. She reminded that 250 years ago, piano music wasn’t written or typically performed for public spectacle but for gatherings of friends: after all, that’s how small-ensemble or solo works came to be known as chamber music. Her method for performance is to go deep into the music to reveal its meaning, trace its narrative and bring its humor to the surface. Haydn isn’t the first composer most people would associate with humor, but Garniez dove in confidently and matter-of-factly, took her time and then romped through it, all the while carefully juxtaposing the composer’s contrasting unease and sometimes full-blown angst. The result was deep, and sometimes scary, but also great fun to experience. One suspects it was more historically true to form than most performances of this material staged in big concert halls.
Garniez – mother of the equally talented and individualistic songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez– got intuitive right away with the Bartok. The pianist emphasized how much the connection between performer and audience can impact the music. Likewise, her playing made it it clear how astute, even Montessorian an observer of children Bartok was. While some of the pieces she chose (on the spot, simply because she felt they’d fit the bill) had a carefree bounce, many went in a completely opposite direction, one tracing a little girl’s trajectory from laughter to tears, another methodically taking a taunting motif to its sociopathic extreme.
The Haydn was even more fascinating. Garniez’ interpretations were 180 degrees the opposite of the cookie-cutter approach most conservatory students are directed to follow, nonchalant but attuned to the most minute dynamics both in the storylines and the architecture of the music. She explained how Haydn was fascinated by the minute degrees of how piano notes can be changed or inflected, depending on where a finger strikes on the key – which explains the logic behind the way he let single notes stand naked, where other composers would add harmonies or ornamentation to flesh out the sound. She brought to life the ominous foreshadowing that eventually descends to a chilling sense of complete emotional destitution in the andante in the Sonata in G Minor, No. 44, and also the tongue-in-cheek teasing that finally bubbles joyously to the surface as the Sonata in D, No. 14 bounced its way out.
Nancy Garniez has also built an iconoclastic career researching what she calls Tonal Refraction, a holistic discipline that draws on color, acoustic science and psychology and has many uses that apply as much to music therapy as to concert performance, improvisation and composition. To top all this off, after the concert, there was ice cream, and cranberry brownies – and good conversation with a thoughtful gathering of people who had clearly come to take something away from this and ended up walking out into the night rewarded. Garniez plays the final segment in her survey of Haydn and Bartok this Sunday, May 19 at 7 PM: email for location and details. Later this summer, she’ll begin a new weekly series exploring the connection between J.S. and C.P.E. Bach and more modern composers.
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