Friday, October 21, 2011

The Third Symphony of Charles Ives

My experience in Danbury back weekend sent me back to my CDs of Charles Ives’s Third Symphony this week. It turns out I have accumulated more recordings of the work in the past few years than I realized — six in all, to wit:

Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbruecken, Michael Stern, cond. (Col legno 20225)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, no conductor (DGG 439 869-2)
Northern Sinfonia, James Sinclair (Naxos 8.5559087)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner (Decca 289 466 745-2)
Concertgebouw Orch., Michael Tilson Thomas (CBS Masterworks MK37823)
New Philharmonia Orch., Harold Farberman (Everyman 08 6154 71)

I’ve listened to them all in the past few days, and the winner is — well, I must confess I prefer the larger ensembles. Tilson Thomas has the greatest sensitivity to line, Marriner gets a beautiful tone out of the Academy musicians, and Farberman draws the most organlike feeling from the New Philharmonia, which to me is a plus, since the symphony is derived from earlier organ pieces. Farberman’s recording is also the only one that does not use the so-called shadow lines or the optional chimes at the close. I don’t miss either. I also like his slower tempos, esp. in the central “Children’s Day” movement. These three were my favorites, this time around.

The others are fine, too, in their ways, but the smaller groups — the Orpheus and the Northern Sinfonia — sound somewhat shrill at the climaxes, and perhaps Stern’s pacing isn’t as smooth as it could be.

Ives scholarship seems to be perpetually in flux, and, the dates of the symphony change, depending on which liner notes you read. The older CDs say the piece was “assembled” in 1904 and revised in 1909. The later recordings say it was written between 1908 and 1911. Take your choice.

Regardless of the forces used, it’s a beautiful piece. It’s not necessary to identify all of the borrowed hymn tunes to appreciate the music, and, indeed, I’ve been listening to the piece for decades without making the effort, but thanks to Nancy Sudik’s tutelage, I can now name them all.

On to Three Places in New England.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ives Day 2011 ("There Is a Happy Land")

I don’t often use the phrase “perfect day," but Sunday nearly qualified — sunny fall weather, congenial company, and the music of Charles Ives. It doesn’t get much better than that. I was in Danbury, Conn., for Ives Day 2011. This year’s observance was devoted to the Third Symphony, subtitled “The Camp Meeting,” a jewel of a piece that may be thought of as Ives’s pastoral.

The day adhered to the standard template: a hike up Pine Mountain, where Ives spent a great deal of time as a boy and a young man, followed by visits to the Ives birthplace and gravesite, and wrapping up with music — this time, the Third Symphony, as rendered by the Danbury Symphony Orchestra. Albert Montecalvo conducted a chamber-sized complement of 23 musicians, which is really all the piece needs.

What made the concert unique was the venue. The performance took place on the upper level of a parking garage in downtown Danbury. (It has a name, too: the Charles Bardo Parking Garage behind the Danbury Music Center. Just what does a man have to accomplish in life to have a parking garage named after him — other than, say, owning a parking garage?) Chairs were set up on the sloping concrete, giving us in the audience a view, over the heads of the musicians, of St. James Episcopal Church a block or so away. At the end of the third movement, Ives calls for bells to be played softly, as if heard in the distance. Tubular chimes are generally in concert halls, but in Danbury, the part was given to the St. James carillon, cued by cell phone. It might have been the first performance anywhere in which the church bells used in the Ives Third were real, and perhaps the first to accurately convey the sense of space Ives had in mind when he wrote the piece.

I have heard better performances of the work as a whole, but no studio recording or concert-hall performance will ever recapture, for me, the moment when the St. James chimes began to ring. I know this music like my own home, and I still wasn’t prepared for the effect, which was stunning. I expect to remember it for the rest of my life.

My thanks to Nancy Sudik, the indefatigable director of the Danbury Music Center — and first horn of the Danbury Symphony — for conceiving the performance and making it happen. Nancy also leads the Ives Day tours every year.

In much of his music Ives famously “borrowed” existing tunes, reworking them into contrapuntal fantasies. He based the Third Symphony on a half dozen hymns he’d heard as a boy and played professionally as a church organist, and Nancy, bless her heart, made sure we knew what we were hearing when the orchestra began to play. She had us sing the hymns at the top of Pine Mountain. She had us sing them at the birth house. She had us sing them on the roof of the garage. It got to be too much for me — I’d strained my throat on the first go-round, trying to hit the high E’s in “There Is a Fountain” — but the crowd kept growing throughout the day, and there were always fresh voices for the chorus.

A group of young composition students from the Hartt School of Music, Hartford, joined us at the birth house and stayed with us the rest of the day. Johnny “Guitar” Provo, who is just discovering Ives’s music, drove in from Rhode Island with a couple of friends. He took the hike up the mountain, and later left a pick on the composer’s gravestone. And there was a man I know only as Allan, who drives up from New Jersey every year and who might be the one person in America who can rival me for the title of No. 1 Ivesian. These are my people. It was good to spend a day with them.