Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Little Shrine

Charles Ives's studio, with his piano, seen from outside a small set of windows. The view out the window at the far end is a photographs of the view in West Redding.

On Thursday I took a day trip to New York to see the studio from Charles Ives’s home in West Redding, Conn. The home was sold last year, but the studio – or rather, the furnishings and artifacts from the studio – are on permanent display at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, donated by Ives’s grandson, Charles Ives Tyler. It’s a small exhibit, but a compelling one. Everything is arranged just as it was in the composer’s his lifetime, though perhaps a little neater – his piano, his books, his photographs, the double doors he used as a bulletin board, even his bottles of bitters. His infamous felt hat, the one he wore in many late-life photographs, sits on top of the bookcase, near the cornet that belonged to his father, George Ives.
Ives's desk, with the end of his cot at left. The studio was not added to the West Redding house until 1922, as Ives's health was failing. He probably did little actual composing here. 

It’s no surprise, but the little room, particularly the bulletin board, reminded me of Ives’s music. Both are slightly disheveled but welcoming collages built from random scraps of memory, and both are windows into the mind of the man who made them. The surrounding exhibition includes photographs, letters written by Ives to his daughter in his nearly indecipherable scribble, concert programs, early editions of scores, and the inevitable narrative decaled on the walls. Some of the information presented has been rendered obsolete by recent books on the composer, and some of it is simply wrong. Ives did not stop composing entirely in 1920, for example, and his breakdown in 1918 was most likely not a heart attack. A photo of George White Ives, the composer’s grandfather, is misidentified as his father, George Edward, but the portrait of a young Harmony in her nurse’s uniform is a heartbreaker. Adam Budiansky, in his new biography of Ives, Mad Music, refers to Harmony as a plain girl. She was anything but.
Ives's bookcase, with his felt hat, his father's cornet.

One could go through the entire exhibition in about twenty minutes, but I stayed upwards of two hours, until closing time at 4 p.m. I spent much of that time chatting with the docents and couple of the visitors, one of whom turned out to be the clarinetist Mark Simon, an old acquaintance from my days posting at the Classical Music Guide discussion board. I also had the good fortune to be there at the same time as Kyle Werner, a young composer who is also Robert Mann’s archivist.

The American Academy is way uptown on Broadway at 155th Street, a part of Manhattan I had never visited. One hears a lot of Spanish on the streets. The galleries, home to a large collection of contemporary art, occupy two of a set of hulking neoclassical buildings, set back from the street, that collectively used to be the Numismatic Society. (All that ostentation for a bunch of coin collectors?) Now, the Academy shares the central piazza with Boricua College and the New York Hispanic Society.
The bulletin board made from the double doors that led to the rest of the house.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Another memorable afternoon

Sarah Shafer
The Independence Sinfonia group keeps raising the bar for itself. Usually, I attend concerts by small, semi-professional orchestras with modest hopes. I’m content with the passable reading of a familiar piece, and I’m willing to forgive the occasional the whining intonations and the ragged tuttis in return for an enthusiastic performance in an intimate venue. But the Independence Sinfonia, under Jerome Rosen, no longer has the cushion of low expectations. Yesterday’s performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was as good as any concert in recent memory -- or long-term memory, for that matter. The orchestra played wonderfully, which was all the more impressive since the musicians told me afterward that they had not read through the pieces in their entirety during rehearsals. They had spent all of their time polishing up individual sections, they said. Special mention goes to concertmaster William Phillips, who had meaty solos in both works, and first trumpet Rick Yiensgt, whose fanfares in the first movement of the Mahler nearly reduced me to tears.

The soprano Sarah Shafer, in a royal -blue gown, was touching, wide-eyed presence in “The Heavenly Life,” although, based on what I heard, I can’t judge if she’s destined for the brilliant future Jerry predicted for her. For the performance, she stood back among the woodwinds, which was a mistake, I think, even in the small room at Or Hadesh. But it’s a minor complaint. I could hear every word.

One player summed up the experience afterward by saying, in reference to Jerry Rosen, "It helps to have a retired genius in charge." Then again, I don't think genius every really retires.

On the strength of my preview in the paper, I was invited to the post-concert party. Thanks, Faith, for all the orange juice. Compliments, too, to third trumpet Mark Handler, who provided the chocolate cookies.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Sarah Shafer sings Mahler

The 25-year-old soprano Sarah Shafer, who has a few weeks left as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, will perform Sunday with the Independence Sinfonia in Fort Washington. Shafer will appear as soloist in the last movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, and Jerry Rosen, the Sinfonia's music director, tells me she is destined for great things. You can read my preview here.

The Independence Sinfonia is, in my opinion, the best of Philadelphia's several suburban orchestras, largely because of the work Rosen has done with the string section in the past few years.