Friday, July 6, 2018

The Ives Festival

Last week our local classical station online feed didn't week for a couple of days. That meant I had to go elsewhere to listen to the radio before bed. I have a radio, but it makes an annoying buzzing sound with the headphones in and the connection is very sensitive and anyway---it just works better that way.

For some reason I thought I'd catch up with some Ives Symphonies. Charles Ives. It was practically the 4th of July anyhow, and what better way to be patriotic than to listen to an insurance salesman who wrote music on nights and weekends that people thought sounded awful. And he kept on writing it anyhow because, you know, individualism. Of a most rugged kind!

Actually, three of Ives' four numbered symphonies are pretty tame, tonally. They are plenty quirky, and two of them quote from a lot of hymn tunes and fiddle tunes and marches and things, but the man on the street wouldn't get TOO offended if I played him a few bars. Once in college a roommate heard me listening to the Ives Fourth and thought the guy was a nutcase. If you've never heard it imagine a sonic representation of a Jackson Pollack. The kind of art people think their six-year could create. I played him something from Ives' First, which is fairly conventional sounding and my roommate decided maybe the guy knew what he was doing after all. This is the way it is with abstract artists. They have to convince Joe Public they really could draw a straight line if they wanted to, and also a nice landscape.

Anyway, I spent four nights listening to the four numbered symphonies--a miniature Ives Festival. The first night I listened to Ives's Second. Bernstein was doing it. It was a vibrant interpretation, even if it featured a few kitchy bits. Bernstein couldn't quite get what Ives was up to even if he did have more insight into him than most of his contemporaries. This was particularly apparent the fourth night when I listened to the Third. This rendering was extremely metronomic. There was something about it that didn't breathe at all. The tempos all felt wrong: the first movement was too slow, the second was too fast, the third also too fast--but the real problem was that it didn't sound like nostalgia, it sounded like virtuosity and precision. I generally like Lenny, but he ruined my favorite Ives symphony.

Hunting around Youtube, though, you can find some interesting things. For a performance of Ives's First Symphony, I came across an orchestra in Russia. There wasn't any English translation so I don't know who exactly. But they managed to make Ives sound like Tchaikovsky.  The angst was palpable. The tempos were slow, and the aching melodies, which Ives wrote in college for an assignment, were quite profound. I don't know how they found a hugely depressed Russian in the writing of a teenaged American at Yale trying to pull his conservative teacher's leg, but they did--admirably. And they really sold it, too. I was impressed. I found myself ruminating on how Ives really had stolen bits of the Russian symphonist, along with Brahms, Dvorak, and the New England School. And how a translation of a translation doesn't always get you back to where you started, and how people can really misunderstand each other, culturally, but...this was really marvelous. And really wrong. But, hey, why not?

Maybe the most useful thing was when I found the premiere broadcast of the Fourth, conducted by Stokowsky and the American Symphony, complete with twenty minutes of interviews and shmoozing about the piece and how interesting and difficult it was to put everything together in rehearsal. Then I got to see them trying to deal with the gargantuan score, and watch three conductor simultaneously conduct parts of the orchestra at different tempi. Like Ives's music, there were several layers involved here: one was appreciating the way in which the people who put the program together were trying to reach a presumably wary, and uninitiate public.

Ives will probably never be loved as a composer, which is too bad. He did write some good tunes, besides all of the fascinating ways in which he put pre-existing tunes together. I still can't get the Second symphony out of my head, and that was several days ago. Ives was an interesting man, and his music makes me nostalgic for a part of America I never really knew--at least, not entirely. We have some of it in common, though. I grew up singing some of the tunes, in a small town, and watching the marching bands, organists, and other civic music makers. I probably have an inside track.--At least an appreciation for rurality that cosmopolitan orchestral conductors don't always seem to be able to get their heads around. And maybe a sense of humor that doesn't come naturally to them either.

But a "gifted primitive?" Please, Lenny!

as usual, there is more to enjoy this week at, including a recording of Gottschalk's "Union."

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