Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hear Classical standards right alongside contemporary 20th and 21st century works? Pianist Pedja Mužijević presented just such an eclectic program in which Haydn sonatas directly alternated with newer music on this evening as a part of the Carolina Performing Arts concert series. “These pairings,” he explained, “don’t have any ‘deeper meaning’.” The pianist curated three pairs of solo works, separated by at the least 167 years. The pairs didn’t necessarily share any commonalities, “just lots of love,” Mužijević explained. Different composers from different countries and eras may have used different “languages” in their writing styles, but regardless of the century in which it was composed, a work can still communicate just as strongly a variety of emotions and nonverbal ideas. Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in D, Hob. XVI:51 opened the evening, a playful and fluid work that Mužijević treated lovingly with clear attacks and an obvious affinity for the composer.

After his brief introduction of the concept of the program, he continued with Jonathan Berger‘s Intermezzo, composed in 2015 specifically for this project. Apparently influenced by themes of Haydn, the piece is exploratory, toying with contrasts in volume and speed, note lengths and tone. Mužijević had a very clear style of conveying his musical gestures: deliberate and perfectly clean, yet undeniably expressive without feeling restrained. He launched from Berger immediately back to the Haydn Sonata in G, Hob. XVI:40. It seemed as if Haydn’s repeated melodies relished more in their variations, as if Mužijević was more overtly appreciating some of Haydn’s harmonic detours and musical jokes. As someone who can admittedly get a little tired of the Classical and Romantic traditions, I appreciated this show of Haydn’s more cheeky side.

As Mužijević readied to move to his “other cubicle,” jokingly referring to the second full Steinway piano behind him, he gave a brief disclaimer about the next composer – John Cage. “I always liked the idea of John Cage,” he stated, “more than the music.” However, his opinion has changed over the years. He voiced his reflection that everyone can have an opinion of music that is valid, but that opinion can always change. Cage’s Bacchanale for prepared piano, composed in 1940, is a funky, rhythmic piece full of Gershwin-style repetition and driving patterns. The “prepared” piano’s strings had been festooned with objects such as weatherstripping, bolts, screws, and washers that change the quality of many of the notes. Some notes came out muted, while others were metallic and harsh, creating a delightful collection of new sounds. It might seem as if performing Haydn next would be jarring after this departure; on the contrary, the transition brought out some of the best of both composers. Haydn’s Sonata in G minor, Hob. XVI:44 was still indicative of a composer trying out new things and playing with our expectations of music. I found myself imagining Haydn composing this sonata in 1773, hunched over his notebook, contemplating what new and exciting things he might try next. I also wondered what Haydn would say if he could see John Cage weaving rubber pieces through the strings of his piano…

The final set, in Mužijević’s words, was a pairing of “a ribeye and a cabernet” to finish off the evening: Morton Feldman‘s 1950 Two Intermissions followed by Haydn’s Sonata in C, Hob. XVI:50. The Two Intermissions were the most sparse of the whole evening. The various disconnected dissonances hung in the air in suspenseful flurries, eventually softening the ear and no longer sounding dissonant. The notes may not have been related, but they worked together to convey Feldman’s curiosity of the relationship between sound and silence. It was not particularly robust or satisfying to listen to, but did make a clear comparison when Haydn followed: the final Haydn sonata felt fully developed, yet with the same curiosity. Notes and patterns led into other notes, but the use of silence was similar. Mužijević allowed phrases to trail off or breathe a little longer in some areas to reflect Haydn’s humorous streak.

Every note Mužijević played was engaging and had a direction in which it was moving, whether it resolved in a traditional way or hung in the air in conflict. The amount of joy he has in performing is absolutely palpable, and it was an extra treat to hear more about his conceptualization and interpretation of each piece in the post-concert question and answer session. At the same time, it was charming and beautiful to be reminded that everyone can have their own opinion and receive different messages from the same music. To be given permission to sit back and enjoy the composers for who they were, rather than impose upon them an arbitrary theme or deeper meaning, was refreshing, and allowed the music to speak for itself through the lens of this brilliant performer.