Arts & Culture

‘Darkness Visible’ brings Emerald City chamber series — and a stunning piano piece — to Tacoma

Pianist Conor Hanick, one of the performers in the upcoming “Darkness Visible” concert for Emerald City Music in Seattle and Tacoma.
Pianist Conor Hanick, one of the performers in the upcoming “Darkness Visible” concert for Emerald City Music in Seattle and Tacoma. Courtesy

You couldn’t pick a better time of year in the Pacific Northwest to play a concert called “Darkness Visible.” But even as November skies close in, Emerald City Music is talking about a different kind of darkness.

The innovative new chamber series that began in Seattle and Olympia this fall brings five stellar young East Coast artists — including artistic director violinist Kristin Lee — to play a Tacoma program at the University of Puget Sound. It walks the line between French and English 20th century music.

The concert’s title is epitomized in Thomas Adès’ shimmering piano solo “Darknesse Visible.”

“It’s such a singular piece,” said Conor Hanick, one of the two pianists in the show, who’ll play the Adès. “There’s nothing quite like it. It gives a nod to the heritage of British (vocal) music, but the textures share a lot of what you might think of as French — blurred, gauzy harmonies, a very impressionistic sound world.”

“Darknesse Visible” blurs those boundaries because of the 17th century song that inspired it and how it pulls that song apart with 21st century musical structures and piano techniques.

Darkness Visible” is a powerful and profound mind experience, and an incredibly beautiful sound.

Conor Hanick, pianist

Written as a lute song in 1610 by John Dowland, “In Darknesse Let Me Dwell” is one of Renaissance England’s musical jewels, recorded by everyone from early music countertenors to Sting. It’s based on an anonymous poem that dives deep into exquisite misery (“Thus, wedded to my woes and bedded in my tomb/O let me living die, til death doth come”). Dowland makes it even sadder, his melody hovering over rising and falling half-steps in a plaintive minor key.

Adès, a British composer, takes Dowland’s tune and, in his own words, “explodes” it from the inside out. Every note in the piece is part of the original song, but so scattered between mystic extremely low left hand notes, powerful single upper right hand notes and a constant, shimmering single-note tremolo that you don’t realize what you’re hearing until the very end, when the song is played simply and in entirety. As The Guardian puts it, you “feel you’re experiencing the piano as apparition as much as reality.”

“The sonority and texture is so compelling, and the concept so alluring,” said Hanick, a young Brooklyn-based pianist called “brilliant” and “astounding” by the New York Times. “And it’s an amazing psychological experiment. We’re used to listening to music as a linear A-to-B act, not as single instances. This piece asks us to do both. It’s a powerful and profound mind experience and an incredibly beautiful sound.”

It’s also a fiendishly difficult piece, written in three or four staves (lines of music, of which a pianist usually has just one for each hand) and requiring enormous technical prowess and endurance to sustain 7-odd minutes of single-note tremolo (single keys repeated extremely quickly by several fingers in succession, over and over).

“That’s by far the most challenging aspect,” said Hanick. “To make it sound not like a repetition, but like a continuous tone. It’s hard to do. So much is dependent on the instrument.”

So Hanick will be arriving early to Schneebeck Hall to get used to the piano there. It’s a recent venue change for Emerald City, which has been staging successful concerts in the round, with casual artist conversation, drinks and food, in the warehouse-style hall behind Kakao Coffee in South Lake Union. Occasionally, concerts repeat in Olympia, and — this November and in May — in Tacoma. While the Tacoma setup will be more traditional, series director Andrew Goldstein still hopes the vibe will be casual, aided by conversation-starter cards on the seats and plenty of social media dialogue.

The other hallmarks of the Emerald City series are high-quality artists not often seen on the West Coast, playing intriguing programs. Both will happen Nov. 12. As well as Hanick, musicians include pianist Michael Mizrahi, flautist Tara Helen O’Connor, cellist Jay Campbell and violinist Kristin Lee, the series’ artistic director. All have international résumés.

The program continues the English-French theme through an exploration of 20th century music for piano and one (sometimes two) instruments: Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, Dutilleux’s Sonatine for Flute and Piano, Britten’s Suite for Violin and Piano and Ravel’s Piano Trio, a work that Hanick will play.

“For all its impressionistic sounds, (the Ravel) is so meticulously crafted, so pointillistic,” Hanick said. “And there’s so much richness it feels like a piano quintet.”

After the series of various duos, which offers the audience a “kaleidoscopic view of what those instruments are capable of,” said Hanick, the Ravel trio will “explode the sound.”

Above all, the program will walk the boundary between two nations that historically prided themselves on their differences.

“In the 20th century, the more traditional stylistic features of French and English music were complicated, blurred and shared,” said Hanick.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Darkness Visible

Who: Emerald City Music, with Conor Hanick and Michael Mizrahi, piano; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; Jay Campbell, cello; and Kristin Lee, violin.

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12.

Where: Schneebeck Hall, University of Puget Sound, 1701 N. Union Ave., Tacoma.

Tickets: $28 general, free for students.

Information: 206-250-5510, emeraldcitymusic.org.

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