Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ives Overwhelms Beethoven at Davies

Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who used to create thoroughly engaging drawings representative of scenes from plays for The New York Times worked up a series of satirical illustrations under the collective title Unlikely Casting. He would think up an extremely familiar role from a play, such as Lady Macbeth, and then draw someone who would never on earth be associated with that role. (In the case of Lady Macbeth, he drew Carol Channing.) Such couplings that do not quite work make for some very funny comedy; but, when comedy is not intended, the pairing is likely to be little other than awkward.

That may well be the case for the coupling planned for this week’s series of concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), at Davies Symphony Hall. The first half of the program was devoted to Charles Ives’ fourth symphony, and the intermission was followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 61 violin concerto in D major with Pinchas Zukerman as soloist. One wonders what Ives himself would have thought of the coupling. According to Charles Ives and His Music, by Henry and Sidney Cowell, Ives seems to have had respect for Beethoven but, as the Cowell’s put it “found other people’s music interfered with the music of his own that he was always carrying around in his head.” This afternoon’s performance seems to have suggested that interference could be a two-way street.

During MTT’s tenure with SFS, Davies has been an excellent place to get to know Ives’ music. There have been a generous number of opportunities to listen to performances, many of which have been framed by some very highly informed pre-concert introductions. MTT has been directly involved with most, but not all, of those performances. This was all to the advantage of today’s offering.

Ives seems to have begun work on his fourth symphony in 1916 but did not complete the final revisions until 1924. By that time, almost all of Ives’ work had been completed, if not published, although Ives would live until May 19, 1954. Ives probably did not intend his fourth symphony to be a summa of his all of his past experiences as a music-maker; but it would not hurt to regard the piece that way.

Prior to performing the symphony this afternoon, MTT talked about the influences of hymn tunes and then led the SFS Chorus in a performance of six of those hymns with organ accompaniment. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg of influences that one encounters in the symphony’s score. For example, it would probably be an exaggeration to say that all of the 114 songs that Ives published in 1922 can be found somewhere in the fourth symphony; but, even if that assertion is not strictly true, it does not take much of a stretch to believe it. Far more explicit is the almost note-for-note reproduction of the fugue from Ives’ first string quartet in the symphony’s third movement (even if the quartet never allows “Joy to the World” to intrude).

The New York Times comes to mind again. There used to be billboard advertisements of the Sunday edition with the slogan, “You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there.” My guess is that even those who pore over every mark on the pages of the published score of Ives’ fourth symphony may never know how much is really “all there.” Ives’ packed so much into this piece, particularly in its second movement (which he labeled “Comedy”), that it is almost impossible to establish what would constitute a satisfactory performance.

Nevertheless, through making some very judicious decisions about where to place the players (not all of whom were visible), drawing upon the assistance of Resident Conductor Christian Reif to keep the most complex polyrhythms under control, and the decision to situate Peter Dugan as if he were a piano concerto soloist, MTT did about as good a job as could be expected in giving an accessible account of Ives’ complexity, outrageous dissonances and obstreperous intrusions and all. The only source of confusion was the program listing of Crystal Soo Jeong Kim (a member of the SFS Chorus) as soprano soloist. If there was a solo voice in any range within all that complexity, it managed to elude my attention.

In a way I regret that my schedule would not allow me to attend all three performances of this symphony. My guess is that I would have heard different things on each of the three occasions. I make this claim on the basis of the fact that I am familiar with three different recordings of the piece, an experience base that at least allowed me to negotiate the overall “geography” of the composition. However, the devilish fun is in the details; and I would almost expect that every performance brings out its own individual preferences for details, even when those performances are by the same ensemble with the same conductor. After all, who wants to listen to a performance that just sounds like a recording?

Given the nature of such a listening experience, it should be no surprise that, even with the benefit of an intermission, the spirit of Ives was still reverberating in my cerebral cortex when Zukerman took the stage to play the Beethoven concerto. Was his approach to the first movement really as peremptory as it felt while I was listening, or was I being distracted by Ives’ dispensation to mock all composers of the past? Most likely it was a combination of those two alternatives, since it certainly seemed as if much of Zukerman’s solo work was more business-as-usual than it was music-in-the-immediate-moment. For his part MTT certainly kept the ensemble well balanced at a pace that only on a few occasions left one wondering if things were going on for too long.

Perhaps the only really satisfying thing one can do after having performed the Ives fourth is to play it again after the intermission.

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