A Rewarding, Revelatory Visit to Nancy Garniez’s Upper West Side Piano Salon

by delarue

About four times a month, sometimes more frequently, pianist Nancy Garniez hosts a salon in an Upper West Side studio about three minutes from the train. She’s been doing this for the better part of ten years. Like Pauline Oliveros, Garniez devotes this delightfully informal series to deep listening, Her playing, and her repertoire, take into account that an audience is always an intrinsic part of the performance. That, and her (some would say quixotic) understanding of how the physics of sound applies to the mechanics of the piano.

Asked how the series was going lately, Garniez said earlier this evening that it’s become one of the most rewarding projects she’s ever been involved with – in a career as a concert pianist, organist, chamber musician and educator since the 1960s. She calls her approach Tonal Refraction: she considers the piano a post-tonal instrument. Anyone who disagrees should sit down at one, put the pedal down, play a chord, play another one and then just try to count the number of notes resonating from inside. The closer you listen, the faster you discover that most of them don’t even exist in the western scale.

Garniez’s stunningly legato touch on the keys, and her fondness for letting a note ring out for emphasis when a piece calls for it, are her main distinctions as a player. Geat drummers also know what has become second nature for Garniez: sound is something that you let out of an instrument instead of trying to bang it in.

This past evening’s program was a typically relevatory mix. Garniez began with a small handful of Clementi sonatas, emphasizing how melody isn’t limited to tones: rhythm plays just as important a role. Methodical and carefree, she gave voice to the composer’s artful, sometimes devilishly fun metric variations and expansions. No wonder Beethoven and Brahms held him in such high esteem.

Next on the bill were Chopin mazurkas. In Garniez’s hands, they transcended any peasant dance connotation: these ballads were haunting! As kinetic as the rhythms were, Garniez approached them with economy and understatement: when a particularly emphatic phrase would appear, it was all the more striking.

She closed with a delicious series of Dvorak waltzes and “eclogues,” as he called them. Long before Leif Ove Andsnes released his popular album of Dvorak solo piano works, Garniez was hip to this vastly underrated side of the composer. And it doesn’t have the ornate architecture of his orchestral works – if anything, its transparency is even more striking. “What’s the likelihood – a couple of upbeat country dances wrapped around what sounds like a Bach invention?” one concertgoer marveled.

“I think he was drunk when he wrote it,” Garniez grinned. She might be right – there was a dissociatively cheerful glimmer to that midsection. The rest of the program was as methodically paced, with dynamics so subtle that it would have been a considerable stretch to imagine an audience being able to connect in a huge concert hall. “That ninth chord,” Garniez mused. “That was really something”

And it was – a lingering, bittersweet, muted coda that Garniez let resonate as long as the score would accommodate. Garniez’s next salon is at 4 PM this Sunday, Feb 18; email for location and information. After this performance, there was wine, and eclectic snacks, and passionate conversation – which you would expect after something this rapturously interesting.