Last Friday saw the release of the third volume in the project of Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to record the orchestral works of Charles Ives. The project began with the release of the first volume in March of 2015, followed by the second volume in January of 2016. In my home town of San Francisco, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, has put considerable effort into preparing programs that highlight the work of “maverick” composers. What is interesting about Ives is that, in many ways, he is as much of a maverick over half a century after his death as he was during his lifetime. Indeed, the conductor who may have done the most to try to bring Ives into the “mainstream” was Leonard Bernstein, who mentored MTT. Nevertheless, in spite of what amounts to two generations of enthusiastic support, it is probably the case that Ives remains impenetrable to many of today’s listeners, perhaps even more so than (to choose an extreme example) John Cage.
This is not a matter of Ives’ highly aggressive approach to dissonance. It is not difficult to come up with a laundry list of names in the domains of classical, jazz, and rock, whose dissonances definitely overwhelm Ives on the decibel scale. If Ives has not really caught on, the problem may have more to do with the fact that the context in which he approached composition is so different from the current mindset.
When Bernstein introduced Ives’ second symphony to New York Philharmonic audiences, there was still an understanding of the composer’s New England background. One could appreciate the context of his rugged individualism, grounded in his admiration for the home-grown philosophy of transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. In addition, there was a familiarity to the vast palette of familiar tunes that he would weave into his thick contrapuntal structures, whether they involved selections from any number of different hymnals or the songs that would be raucously sung at a fraternity party. As anyone who has seen Animal House knows, that kind of singing is now part of a past that is as distant as Gregorian chant; and, while there are still communities of the faithful that would recognize at least some of the hymns that Ives quoted, members of those communities tend to prefer their own singing to music-making in a concert hall.
What, then, are we to make of a present-day commitment by a British label working with a British conductor leading an Australian ensemble in the interest of promoting Ives’ music? Personally, I happen to be comforted by the prospect. As a “refugee” from Silicon Valley, I take a very dim view of a culture that is so obsessed with the “now” that it pretty much takes pride in its ignorance of anything that happened as little as 24 months ago. If I have to turn to that “sceptred isle” to find others who not only value history but relish different ways of exploring it, then so be it. Davis may not be preaching Ives’ gospel with the first-hand experience of the four Evangelists; but there is nothing about his work that leads me to question the sincerity of his faith.
Some may argue that my thoughts about Davis are, themselves, an act of faith. They would have a point, but I can also bring reason to my position. What has struck me the most about the three albums that Chandos has produced thus far is that Davis seems to show a strong commitment to bringing clarity to scores that often strike anyone familiar with music notation as being about a clear as a canvas painted by Jackson Pollock. If Ives’ primary rhetorical device involves closely-cut superpositions of thematic fragments that never quite fit together, then Davis seems to have figured out ways to lay all those fragments out without making the whole thing sound like a nebulous cloud of white (or colored) noise.
This may involve more than just worrying about balance on a second-by-second level. Davis also seems to know just how to control tempo in ways that will not overwhelm the sensemaking efforts of the listener. Does that mean than he can account for a musical evocation of a camp meeting (which is what Ives does in his third symphony, one of the selections on the new album) without having experienced such a camp meeting or perhaps even not knowing what one is or was? I doubt that he can; but, if he can still capture that idiosyncratic amalgam of a wildly spontaneous congregation responding to a rhetorically disciplined sermon, then, as the song goes, “that will have to do until the real thing comes along.”
The fact is that all three selections on this new release, the third and fourth symphonies and the second of Ives’ “orchestral set” pieces, carry massive quantities of historical and cultural baggage. These days I feel as if one hand will be sufficient to count the number of listeners who are even remotely aware of that baggage. Nevertheless, Davis can make Ives speak to us, just as a first-rate conductor can make Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major convey some sense of historical signification even to those who know beans about Napoleon and Beethoven’s changing impressions of him.