Ives Festival opener provides array of works, mixed rewards

By Lawrence A. Johnson

One hundred and thirty-five years after his birth and more than a half-century after his death, Charles Ives remains a tough sell—even  to New World Symphony audiences who are among the most sophisticated classical concertgoers in South Florida.

There were plenty of empty seats at the Lincoln Theater Friday night for the first of three weekend concerts devoted to the pioneering American composer. And while the opening program made a worthy introduction, the performances proved decidedly mixed— as one might expect with five conductors handling the duties. 

There’s no discounting Ives’ originality and visionary elements, with his incorporation of popular music, polytonal and experimental elements decades ahead of his time.  But even giving Ives his due, perhaps it’s time to admit that his posthumous reputation may be a bit inflated.

 When the Ives renaissance began in the 1950s and 1960s, much of the music world was stuck in a stagnant mire of arid academic serialism. Ives’ raw, rude Yankee vitality must have seemed bracingly fresh, honest and unpretentious by comparison, leading many to overstate Ives’ place in the musical firmament. 

WIth so many of his manuscripts left in disarray and the predominating unevenness and lack of finish to his scores, one can’t help thinking that the American iconoclast’s ultimate legacy may be one of historical significance for what he represents more than musical importance for his actual works.

Tilson Thomas elected to present Ives’ two most familiar items, The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark together as Two Contemplations, as Ives preferred.  In his only podium appearance Friday, MTT conducted the former work but this Unanswered Question was aptly named due to the overly didactic presentation. With no space in the wings for offstage strings, the hushed string phrases were prerecorded and then played back while the musicians sat silently onstage, adding unwonted visual bewilderment to Ives’ philosophical conundrum. Further, with the strings recorded at a very hushed level and the onstage winds and balcony-placed trumpeter quite loud and present, the jarring dynamic extremes distracted attention from the actual music.

Young conductor Kazem Abdullah, a former New World clarinetist, led the ensuing Central Park in the Dark. But Ives’ alfresco New York tone poem is not a work that plays itself and the journeyman conductor’s literal, ponderous reading had little mystery or humor, with even  the initial entrance of “Hello, My Baby” failing to raise a smile. 

Ives’ experimental works came off better. In From the Steeples and the Mountains–essentially a canonic polytonal crescendo for chimes and brass—New World conducting fellow Edward Abrams led a clean, well-balanced reading with a suitably clamorous climax. Conductor Steven Jarvi’s account of the scherzo Over the Pavements-another noisy Ives street scene—was similarly imposing if more rough-hewn.

Ives scholar James Sinclair was on the podium for Three Places in New England, the sole work for full orchestra heard Friday.  Sinclair brought out the crazed  patriotic fervor of Putnam’s Camp with its off-kilter fanfares and  brassy audacity, yet the outer movements were less convincing. Sinclair drew warm string playing in The St Gaudens in Boston Common though his direction felt rather tentative. The concluding Housatonic at Stockbridge was similarly unfocused, far too loud and missing the limpid American Impressionism of the score, one of Ives’ most beautiful inspirations.

The most satisfying performance was Ives’ bizarro Piano Trio. Guest pianist Jeremy Denk provided witty and informed verbal notes and proved a fine collaborator with New World violinist Martin Shultz and cellist Hannah Whitehead. The trio is a reminiscence of Ives’ Yale days, alternately satiric and affectionate, and the players’ vivacity and commitment brought out the school odes and wry in-jokes as richly as the expressive depth of the final movement.

The New World’s Charles Ives Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Lincoln Theater with the Holidays Symphony. 305-673-3331; www.nws.edu

Posted in Performances, Uncategorized

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Sat Feb 21, 2009
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