New World offers rarity with Ives’ “Holidays Symphony”

By Alan Becker

 Although trained at Yale in the “proper” way to do things musically, Charles Ives quickly veered from the correct path and became an iconoclast, determined to set fire to tradition. That was clearly evident at Saturday’s New World Symphony concert, where Michael Tilson Thomas, three additional conductors, and the University of Miami Frost Chorale presented the composer’s Holidays Symphony as an example of his irreverence for the traditional at the Lincoln Theatre.

The Holidays Symphony is less a true symphony and more a collection of four symphonic poems depicting important American holidays. It was an excellent idea to preface Ives’ work with some of the hymns, popular songs, and war songs deconstructed by the composer for use in the various movements. The Frost Chorale did themselves proud in singing these with gusto and reverence under the leadership of Joshua Habermann.  When eventually heard in the context of the symphony, many of these tunes were easily recognizable, but others remained hidden in the orchestral fabric.

Washington’s Birthday, conducted by Tilson Thomas, has a section for
Jews harp, with its twangy tones adding a touch of homespun humor to
the barn dance episode. Ives even indicated in his prefatory note, that
up to a hundred Jews harps might be used. Naturally he hardly expected
to encounter such a large assemblage of forces, or the din that would
result.  In this performance, one percussionist did the honors, but to fully project the instrument’s, er, unique qualities a few more were needed.

Decoration Day was conducted by Kazem Abdullah, now with the
Metropolitan Opera. The dense string textures, depicting the slow march
to the cemetery recalled from the composer’s youth, were laid bare as
Abdullah sought to bring greater clarity to the music—-or at least as
much clarity as was possible with Adeste Fidelis combined with a Civil
War song and an offstage solo trumpet sounding Taps. The march swelled
in volume and dissonance to commemorate the occasion, as Ives viewed

Former New World Symphony conducting fellow Steven Jarvi brought plenty of fireworks to the Fourth of July, and simplified the sound complexities as best he could. There was no mistaking the Ives favorite Columbia Gem of the Ocean or Battle Hymn of the Republic when they proclaimed their attention. The stentorian climax was both called for and expected.

Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day was handled with skill and emotion
by current conducting fellow Edward Abrams. This is both the longest
and most profound music in the Holiday’s assemblage. It begins with
polychordal triads and some dense writing for the brass that Ives
explained as representing the sternness, strength, and austerity of the
Puritan character. A climax is developed as various hymns are
introduced and a fiddle tune eventually takes over. Following some of
the composer’s most moving music, the chorus enters with Duke Street
as bells peel and the music rises to impressive heights before fading
away. With performances of Ives’ Holidays Symphony not exactly plentiful; Saturday’s New World concert offered probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Posted in Performances

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Sun Feb 22, 2009
at 12:49 pm
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