Porter’s ‘Concord Sonata’ is intimate and impressive

While David Porter, visiting professor of classics, might be better known around campus for his love of classic literature and language or his snappy dressing, his second love is Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-6.” More commonly known as the Concord Sonata, the collection of four piano pieces first published in 1920 concerns the common theme of transcendental authors who lived in Concord, Mass. during the 1840s. While highly regarded as one of the best pieces ever written by an American composer, Ives’ work is largely unheard of.

This past Sunday, Porter took to the pearly keys again to present this technically complex and fascinating work – which he has performed across the country – for an intrigued audience at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. Prefacing his performance with a short speech, Porter briefly explained the concept behind the piece’s four movements, each dedicated to specific figures – “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts” and “Thoreau.” While the work and comprehension of it may be sophisticated, Porter joked with the audience, opening up his talk by quipping on the attendance in the face of adverse weather, “It looks like we actually ‘Concord’ the elements.”

This playfulness permeated the performance, illustrating how Porter himself is as intriguing and multi-faceted as the Sonata. Receiving his B.A. from Swarthmore in 1958 and Ph.D. in classics from Princeton in 1962, he also has extensive experience as a classically trained pianist, having studied piano and harpsichord at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music in the late 50s. In his academic career, Porter has taught at Carleton and Princeton, and served terms as president of both Carleton and Skidmore Colleges.

His long-time role as educator shown through at Sunday’s performance, as Porter opened the recital with an explanation and even demonstration of aspects of Ives’ work, encouraging the audience to listen for them. In particular, Porter focused his explanation on the first movement, “Emerson,” which is typically considered the least accessible of the group. “It is by far the greatest movement in the piece,” Porter said. “It is complicated, craggy, austere even.”

The complexity of the Sonata was not unnoticed by composer Ives, who accordingly wrote a series of essays called Before a Sonata published before its first performance to help explain the rationale behind the composition. “There are lots of tunes, and it’s really very lyrical music, so persevere!” Porter said.

As listening to “Emerson” affirms, this assessment of the difficulty of the piece – to play and to appreciate – turned out to be quite accurate. The piece’s dissonance and inharmoniousness was certainly a deliberate stylistic choice on Ives’ part. “‘Emerson’ seems so far out, so different, and yet most of it was written more than 90 years ago,” Porter reminded listeners. While the style might seem ahead of its time, Ives also referenced familiar tunes throughout the piece, such as the old Scotch melodies in “Hawthorne,” and repeatedly quoted the easily recognizable beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony throughout all four movements of the piece.

Many elements of the work and subsequently its performance were not so traditional. Ives’ ambition as a composer refused to be limited by the ten fingers of pianists, and accordingly, playing the second movement, “Hawthorne,” requires the assistance of a 14 3/4” piece of wood to depress multiple keys at once in cluster chords -“In case you’re feeling ‘board,’” punned Porter.

After “Emerson,” Porter paused only briefly before frenetically and flawlessly resuming – but not effortlessly, as his face exhibited a myriad of emotions ranging from extremely focused to the familiarity of a faint smile upon greeting an old friend. Like this fluctuation, “Hawthorne” itself alternated between the calm and frenzied, interchanging the haunting beauty of the music-box-like 19th century Missionary chant with the jolting, harsh and frantic sounds more reminiscent of an exploding jack-in-the-box. Both the exchange between fluid and jarring moments and the usage of the infamous wooden board impressively displayed Porter’s dexterity and intimate familiarity with Ives’ work, as he played the entire sonata from memory.
The Sonata’s third movement, “The Alcotts,” was perhaps the most accessible of the group, featuring repeated and gentler iterations of Beethoven’s Fifth figure. Compared to the previous two movements, “The Alcotts” was more old-fashioned, passive and certainly less confrontational, greatly contrasting with the prior two titans of dissonance. Instead, it was a passionate, pleading lullaby that later mounted to a frenzy reminiscent of earlier movements, although never becoming as frantic.

Ives also composed accompaniments to the Sonata for other instruments, and Anne Royston ’08 on flute joined Porter for the ending of “Thoreau.” Because Ives intended for the piece to recall a calming day on Walden Pond, “Thoreau” maintains a natural flow of soothing meditation. Royston’s flute accompaniment resonated like a floating stream of consciousness, serving as an appropriate ending to the Sonata by manifesting the reality of Concord that Ives strove to create through the flute, like the one Thoreau himself played.

Undoubtedly, the ease with which Porter played such a challenging and demanding work was impressive in its precision and specificity. As a professor, Porter’s dedication and knowledge on his subject matter is unrivaled, and he met the same high standard in his performance as a pianist. This semester will be Porter’s last as visiting professor, as next fall he will assume a position as visiting professor of classics at Indiana University.