Nancy Garniez runs one of Manhattan’s most rapturously entertaining concert series out of her Upper West Side apartment. Beyond its significance as the place where her daughter Rachelle Garniez – arguably this century’s greatest songwriter in any style of music – grew up, it’s a fertile greenhouse for discovery, and contemplation, and banter, and bliss.
Garniez mère has a very cantabile way of playing: her hands sing. “How do we get this off the page?” is her mantra, a constant search to bring to life every subtle joke, or allusion, or plunge into troubled waters that a composer might take. Her repertoire is vast. The first of this week’s two salons spanned from standard-repertoire Haydn to uncommon Chopin and Brahms and very rare Bartok.
She parsed those pieces at a comfortably strolling pace – composers and performers who show off do not sit well with her, at all She’s been doing this for decades, yet has lost none of her joy of discovery. She opened with a deviously inquisitive improvisation. Before sitting down at the piano, she’d told the audience about how, as a student, she’d had difficulty handling single notes (as opposed to notes comfortably nested within chords). It was like Morton Feldman without the fussiness – hard as that might be to imagine, consider his obsession with a note’s attack and decay. But Garniez considers the big picture more than mere resonance, in the context of a work’s emotional content as well as the player’s frame of mind.
Graceful expanses of one hand answering the other bookended the performance. From listening to the opening Haydn Sonata in D, one astute observer picked up on how the composer would build conversational tension between right and left hand and then offer a moment of relief as a phrase would rise and then pause. There was more of a contemplatively strolling, candlelit quality in a pair of Brahms Intermezzi, like something a composer would play for his family. Garniez is quick to differentiate between a composer’s public persona and his inner self.
The pièces de résistance were dirges by Bartok. Who knew there were such things at all? Does anyone beside Garniez ever play them? What a revelation – like Satie on steroids, influenced by Debussy, and foreshadowing everybody from Messiaen to Jehan Alain. Stern close harmonies in the lefthand exchanging with mournful bell-like motives alluded to unrequited dreams, unfinished business and the sudden, lingering shock of emptiness.
Just as powerful was the relentless intensity of Chopin’s Polonaise in E Flat Minor. Garniez explained that she’d been blown away watching Arthur Rubinstein play it at Carnegie Hall and validated that epiphany. Just when you think its atmosphere is going to lighten, it sinks another step toward the abyss. This and the rest of the program made a heartfelt requiem for the late poet Michael O’Brien.
Afterward, as usual, there was wine, and tasty gluten-free dessert, and lively conversation. Ace drummer Eve Sicular, leader of Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos, shared her insight with the rest of the audience. These salons are like the protests popping up around town: you never know who you’ll run into, or who you’ll reconnect with from ten years ago. The next one is this Sunday, Feb 26 at 4 PM, possibly including some of the works on this bill. Email for location and info.