Charles Ives subtitled his Piano Sonata no. 2 Concord, Mass., 1840–1860, its four movements inspired by authors active there and then: “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts” (Louisa May and her father Bronson), and “Thoreau.” For Ives, translating Transcendentalism into tone meant melding uncompromising complexity and sheer Yankee cussedness, a high-minded ambition that brought the sonata to the brink of unplayability. In fact, to realize Ives’ vision fully requires a guest violist and flutist—evoking the flute Thoreau himself played at Walden Pond—to play extra melodies he added to the score, not to mention a 14½-inch block of wood to play the black-key clusters in “Hawthorne.” (“Is it the composer’s fault that man has only 10 fingers?” Ives asked in Essays Before a Sonata, the book-length program note/apologia he wrote to accompany the piece.)
But the Concord also makes room for gentler and humbler elements—allusions to hymns, marches, and parlor songs, mingling the fantastical, the Shaker-plain, and the misty- Impressionist. (To read Ives’ digs at Debussy in Essays is to see the anxiety of influence in full flower.) The most frequent and audible quotation is the “da-da-da-dum” from Beethoven’s Fifth, a motive Ives extended into what he called a “human faith melody” woven throughout and brought to a grandiose climax in “The Alcotts.”
Ives self-published the sonata in 1920, but had been chipping away at it for at least a decade prior; heard rarely since due to its difficulty, it’s miraculous that Seattle is getting the Concord twice in eight days. Stephen Drury plays it Monday (alongside music by Cage and Lachenmann) in a fundraiser recital for the Seattle Modern Orchestra. Then Cristina Valdes plays it May 7 as part of UW’s three-day Ives mini-festival. Chapel Performance Space, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., seattlemodernorchestra.org. $10–$125. 8 p.m. Mon., April 29, and Brechemin Auditorium, School of Music, UW campus, 685-8384, music.washington. edu. $15. 7:30 p.m. Tues., May 7.