Sunday, November 18, 2007

The New Odd Couple: Felix and Charlie

It is hard to imagine a more incompatible pairing of composers on a single program than this week's San Francisco Symphony offering of Felix Mendelssohn's violin concerto sandwiched between the music of Charles Ives. Given the ways in which Ives used to rant against "pretty little sugarplum sounds" (one source had him singing that phrase to the theme from the second movement of Haydn's "Surprise" symphony), once can imagine that Ives would have been as comfortable with the arrangement as Oscan Madison was with having Felix Ungar as a roommate. To maintain that sandwich metaphor that I have been invoking recently, it was a bit like serving up a High Tea cucumber sandwich between two massive slabs of thick black bread. However, whatever logic there may have been to the way in which the program was arranged, the result was impressive on all counts.

Actually, the good news is that Mendelssohn provided a useful "break" between the demands that Ives poses for both performers and listeners. Whether or not the facile nature of his violin concerto is actually deceptive, we tend to accept it as an old familiar friend; and, in that respect, soloist Sergey Khachatryan did not provide us with an particularly new point of view of the familiar, the way Midori did several seasons ago in her interpretation of the Beethoven violin concerto. On the other hand, regardless of what Joshua Kosman may have written in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, there was nothing "lax, listless and lugubrious" about that familiarity. Where Kosman heard a performance "bizarrely devoid of impulse or energy," what I witnessed was the Still Center of the Universe (no longer at the corner of Sunset and La Brea, whatever Joan Didion may have said on the matter), from which an almost continuous stream of technical challenges were dispatched with uncanny lightness and refinement. In all fairness much of this effect was probably a result of the way in which Khachatryan and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas projected a shared vision of how the entire concerto should be shaped. Perhaps Kosman never had the opportunity to see Jascha Heifetz ("live" or on film) in performance, since Heifetz was a master of that refined stillness from which the most dynamic musical gestures could ensue. I have no idea how much Khachatryan himself (born in Armenia in 1985) knows about Heifetz; and, given the progress (and regress) of other promising young performers, it is hard to tell if he will grow to occupy a position of Heifetz' status. The important thing at this concert was that the role of Mendelssohn on the program was not dismissed out of hand; and, had Ives been alive for the occasions, he just might have been a bit less dismissive of that tradition that he so scorned.

The "main event" of the program was New England Holidays, four pieces ("Washington's Birthday," "Decoration Day," "The Fourth of July," and "Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day") composed between 1897 and 1933, which Ives decided to collect together and call a symphony (probably again as a way of thumbing his nose at tradition). To prepare our ears for this work, Thomas began the evening by conducting Ives' setting of Psalm 90, scored for four-part mixed chorus (with soprano and tenor solos), organ, bells, and gong. This is the work of Ives the church organist, devout and serene enough to serve as another Still Center of the Universe. The gong is barely audible, and the bells are used so sparingly that each one serves to accent some aspect of the text. This is the second time he has conducted this work at Davies Symphony Hall but my first opportunity to hear it under any conductor. My only regret is how long I may have to wait for an opportunity to hear it again.

Before beginning the Holidays Thomas requested that the audience remain silent between the individual pieces, treating the collection as a single "journey." However, he preceded each work by reading a descriptive passage that Ives had written that basically synopsizes the "program." Ives wrote very evocative prose, which always deserves to be read when his music is performed. Thomas' assumption that not all members of the audience would do this was probably correct, so his readings made a definite contribution to the overall effect.

Each of the four pieces invokes a pairing of reflective stillness with celebratory chaos; and, in the case of "The Fourth of July," the chaos is so great that Thomas relied on James Gaffigan to conduct the "parade band," which marched "to a different drummer" than the one providing the beat for the rest of the orchestra. (Ives was very big on Thoreau.) As is the case with the memories that we experience, the mood shifts are abrupt and unanticipated; and San Francisco has a real asset in Thomas' ability to handle the volatility of Ives as skillfully as he manages the volatility of Mahler. Ultimately, however, the full force of this cycle emerges in the time-relevant celebration of Thanksgiving, which, unlike the other pieces, climaxes in a steadily increasing crescendo (again, managed by Thomas in such a way that the power just kept building), culminating in the full chorus singing a Thanksgiving hymn ("God! Beneath thy guiding hand"). The raising of the lights over the Symphony Chorus in these final moments of the entire performance enhanced that sense of a "guiding hand" that had been looking down on the entire evening. The movement then ends, as do the others, with a sense of melancholy departure; but I doubt that anyone left Davies last night with a sense of melancholy.

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