Brandeis held a program as part of their concert series titled “J. S. Bach in the Age of Romanticism” on Saturday, Sept. 19, in Slosberg Music Center. Intended to honor Miriam Jencks, who passed on July 21, 2015, fortepianist Robert Hill played moving musical ballads that paid tribute to a time of musical excellence in all its grandiosity. It would take a musical performance of a whole other caliber to properly commemorate such a distinguished woman, whose passion for music left a huge impression on Brandeis’ music department.
Jencks is deserving of her own concert, though few are aware of her overarching contributions to Brandeis. Jencks is especially notable because of the degree to which she helped shape Brandeis’ music department as a whole and to the appreciation of early music in general. Her donations helped fund the implementation of the Early Instrument Room, which houses a plethora of early instruments intended for student use. Incredibly enough, this room, which was made in memory of her late husband, William P. Jencks (BCHM), includes instruments such as the harp, lute, and sackbut, among many others. Most memorably, Jencks also donated a fortepiano, ca. 1835, from Vienna to the Brandeis Music Department.
Beyond that, she sponsored Early Music in the Boston area over the course of four decades. Needless to say Jencks’ passion for early music was uncanny, and her generosity exceptional. With both of these assets, she was capable of building one of Brandeis’ departments to its character today. Both Jencks and her husband contributed enormously to Brandeis’ history, and have subsequently paved the way for future students to explore the realms of music and biochemistry.
The performance, which was in and of itself a melodious, tonal rendition of the most respectful dedication to her and with a staggering amount of grace, Hill was able to convey respect where it was due. There was no better way to pay tribute to Jencks than through an hour long performance of the preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, performed in the key order of the Chopin Preludes Opus 28. Very fittingly, Hall played the piano that Jencks had donated, since its original donation had encouraged the musical journeys of countless Brandeisians. This fine musical instrument, on which endless hours of harmonious pieces have been played, was finally put to use remembering the woman who made those journeys possible.
As a musician Hill is especially gifted and well-versed in his craft, entertaining his audience with soft, peaceful melodies and yearning rhythms. Each individual song spoke to Chopin’s unparalleled harmonic innovation, though there is speculation that Chopin’s preludes were not necessarily intended to be played together. These pieces might have been written with the intention to act as starter pieces in order to ease into musical performances. If the preludes were so-called generic pieces, then that fact speaks to Chopin’s outstanding musicality and originality. Chopin can be regarded more as a creator in every sense of the word, capable of demanding more passion and integrity from pianists with his frequent use of improvisation and his outright versatility. Hill was capable of conveying the finery that is Chopin’s music with grace and effortlessness. The performance may have been free, but the quality of the performance was priceless.
All in all, the Miriam Jencks Memorial Concert was an extremely rewarding performance on several levels. Classical music, which is very much undervalued in modern times, was upheld as a fine art that it is. A live performance demands the audience to use all the senses–specifically sight and hearing–to appreciate the pianist’s talent. The performance helped unearth part of Brandeis’ great history; even though the university is comparatively new, having been founded in 1948, there is still a lot that has been chronicled over the course of seven decades. Learning part of that great history highlights the generosity of many contributors, as Brandeis wouldn’t be able to provide the same opportunities that it currently does for its students without their selfless donations. Music has the power to speak on a whole other plane, and so it is important that these truly wondrous, early forms of music are not forgotten, because as soon as the craft of classical music is gone, that is when music has lost all of its grace.