Given my enthusiasm for the music of Charles Ives, it was a real treat when I discovered that one of the pieces Menahem Pressler would be covering in his Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music would be the second movement of the Ives piano trio. One might wonder if a German-born Israel-trained pianist would be the right person to coach a performance of Ives; but Pressler is also a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, which played a key role in bringing this trio to the attention of the listening public. Furthermore, since the Beaux Arts worked closely with John Kirkpatrick, one of the foremost authorities on the performance of Ives, in preparing the work for their repertoire, it is hard to imagine anyone with a better understanding of how this trio should be performed. So this was a golden opportunity for me, not only to hear one of my favorite pieces of chamber music but to provide the chance that I might learn a few more things about how to listen to Ives. I ended up scoring on both counts.
The second movement of the trio is a presto with the title "TSIAJ," which stands for "This Scherzo Is A Joke." (I was amused that, in introducing the piece, the pianist (Kevin Korth) tried to pronounce it as if it were an acronym.) My own learning was actually prompted by those introductory remarks and then enhanced by Pressler's coaching. Korth described the movement as being like a "frat party," assuring us all that it would be all right to laugh. However, when Pressler asked the violinist (Leonie Bot) to play a quotation from the "Sailor's Hornpipe" by holding her instrument down like a country fiddler, I realized that the depiction was not of a bunch of rowdy fraternity boys but of a gathering of village musicians whose technical skill was vastly overwhelmed by their enthusiasm. This then reminded me that "The Village Musicians" was a subtitle occasionally used for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Musikalischer Spass, which we know in English as "A Musical Joke." Having already explore a connection between Ives and Johannes Brahms, it is too far-fetched to imagine that "TSIAJ" is Ives' "reply" to Mozart by comparing the bad habits of their respective village musicians?
In both cases playing bad habits "the right way" is no easy matter. However, once Pressler got Korth to tone down enough to let us hear the other two musicians, it was a real joy to hear this group at work. If the biggest problem with Mozart's village musicians is a fumbling on playing the right notes, the sore spot of Ives' villagers lies in their ability to keep time. Anyone who has ever seen the opening scene of Carl Reiner's The Jerk, where Steve Martin is absolutely incapable of stamping his foot in time with the music, will immediately recognize what is going on in Ives' imagination. Korth was particularly good at this, starting with his first extended passage at the very beginning of the movement and later charging into a hopeless muddle of "Jesus Loves Me" with "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood." Pressler said the Kirkpatrick had identified fifty song reference in this short movement but that the Beaux Arts had only found forty of them. Does it matter if we hear them all? I doubt it. Often several are coming at you all at once, so all you can do is take in the overall texture and let your ears pick up the threads that it can. The Beaux Arts knew how to make this work; and, thanks to Pressler's tutelage, we now have a few budding performers catching on to the same skill.