Musicality and Dissonance in Gareth Cordery’s Jr. Recital

By JOHN GOSSELIN

SILVIA CANTU BAUTISTA/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS
Cordery ’20 performed all of the pieces, ranging from Beethoven to Chopin, from memory.

This past Friday evening, I had the great pleasure of hearing Music and History major Gareth Cordery ’20 perform piano pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Leos Janacek and Aaron Copland in Robison Hall. Beginning with Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-Flat Major” (commonly referred to as “The Hunt”), moving on to Chopin’s “Ballade No. 1 in G Minor,” continuing with Janacek’s suite “In the Mists,” and finishing with Copland’s “Piano Variations,” this concert provided a diverse array of pieces running the gamut from classical to romantic to modern. From the beginning, Cordery showed himself to be in complete control of these pieces, performing with a rare zeal, the apparent ease of which belied his intimate familiarity with the music. 

Perhaps one of the most wonderful aspects of a student concert is that the performers are far more likely to comment on their work for The Campus! I first asked Cordery about how he went about designing the program. 

This concert was notable for the differences between each piece, whereas most concert programs, including one he is preparing for a future recital, try to note the thematic similarities between pieces. For example, the last article I wrote featured an all-Bach program, and the upcoming concert by the Jupiter Quartet on November 30 will feature string quartets by French modernists Ravel, Debussy and Dutilleux. 

The Beethoven piece, though it has some formal features which put it on the edge of the classical piano sonata tradition, including four fast movements and some thematic instability in the first movement, sounds far different from the Chopin piece, and both of these 19th-century works felt tame in comparison to the rhythmic anomalies in “In the Mists” and the grating dissonances in Copland’s variations. 

I also asked about the program notes, which I found detailed and intelligent, for they balanced historical details with formal characteristics. Especially for the Janacek and Copland, pieces with which I was unfamiliar, I found the written notes helpful for understanding the musical notes. Cordery wrote the program notes himself, abridged from his longer research papers on the pieces. 

The performance itself was impressive for the creative choices Cordery made in preparation for the concert: he performed without notes. When I asked what led to this decision, he replied that not only is it expected that a musician would have the music memorized before the concert, but that performances with sheet music inhibit his musicality because the act of turning them over distracts the audience from the sound. 

The Copland variations exhibited the most powerful playing of the night, and, especially in the final chords, showed why it is valuable to play pieces people may not have heard before. These variations are a loud, angry set which take a certain degree of careful control to manage properly. The dissonances create a foreboding sense of dread, a feeling compounded by the contrast of the overlapping overtones of low notes and the sharpness of the high notes. 

Cordery’s notes include some information on the mix of influences Copland used in the piece: Schoenberg’s 12-tone methods, Stravinsky’s neoclassicism and the American contribution of jazz. One of the most interesting parts of hearing a piece like this, and reading about its sources, is the idea that someone like Copland knew these sources and knew to combine them into something unique. The influences affecting Beethoven and Chopin were limited to what they heard and saw in their lives, just like those that inspired Copland, but the latter’s experiences translated into a piece that sounds completely different than his predecessors’, showing how he received the great diversity of inspiration which makes his music great. 

Cordery was concerned about putting this piece on the program. “I will admit to worrying about the Copland; it’s relentless in its modernity, but the “Piano Variations” are an important and consequential piece,” he said. “I think it’s important that everyone gets a chance to hear it at least once.” 

I wholeheartedly agree with him; it was a bold choice to program this rarely heard piece and I count myself lucky to be able to hear it in a place like Robison Hall.  

The final part of the variations, a coda consisting of the repetitive drone of dissonant chords, gives way to one special moment at the end. Cordery played the final chord more loudly than he had all night, and his use of the pedal combined with the spectacular acoustics of the hall allowed the overtones of the deepest keys to play uninterrupted for more than 30 seconds. Usually, like in the Beethoven for example, the final cadence lasts for 2-3 seconds, if that. Having just heard a Beethoven piece, the radical change between the two provoked a meditative state for the duration of that final chord, one where I felt I could focus on hearing the notes and just the notes, just like one hears the final ringing of the carillon bells in the late evening.

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