Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Two Weeks of SFS Ives Performances Recorded

from the Amazon.com Web page

This past Friday SFS Media released its latest recording of performances by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), that took place before subscription audiences in Davies Symphony Hall. The recording itself was organized around performances of the last two of the four numbered symphonies composed by Charles Ives. Recordings of the third symphony took place during performances on November 10–12, 2017; and those of the fourth symphony were recorded the following week on November 16–18.

It would be fair to say that there is an autobiographical substrate in just about every composition that Ives wrote. More often than not, that substrate consists of references to familiar music. Those references are so abundant that Clayton W. Henderson tried to catalog them all, publishing his results under the title The Charles Ives Tunebook. Trying to listen to any Ives composition without regard for the substrate is a bit like trying to follow a baseball game without a scorecard, but trying to account for the contents of the substrate is no easier. I purchased my copy of The Charles Ives Tunebook when it was published in 1990, and it was a 292-page book. When I consulted Amazon.com, I was not surprised to learn that a second edition came out on July 2, 2008 with a page count that had gone up to 424. Henderson died on January 7, 2018; but I would not be surprised if there is some student or colleague that is looking for Ives citations that even the second edition of Tunebook may have missed.

It should be no surprise that the program notes for the two symphonies on the new SFS Media album do not try to account for the entire substrate of each symphony. However, at their respective concerts, MTT preceded the performance of each symphony by having the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) sing some of the hymns that Ives had appropriated, five for the third symphony and six for the fourth. Mind you, the entire substrate consisted of more than hymns; and the attentive listener is as likely to encounter “Turkey in the Straw” as “There is a fountain filled with blood.”

Beyond the question of sources, there are also challenging issues of structure. Ives has probably come closer than any other composer to an approach that parallels stream of consciousness narrative in text. As a result, the thematic materials, whether appropriated or original, bounce off of each other as if they were sharing a table filled with billiard balls. Ives himself often wrote descriptive narratives to accompany his music; but the music itself simply takes the narrative as a context, rather than trying to follow all the twists in the plot line.

Of the two symphonies, the third is the more accessible. The symphony has an overall title, The Camp Meeting; and each movement has its own subtitle, “Old Folks Gatherin’,” “Children’s Day,” and “Communion,” respectively. Mind you, Ives assumed that every listener would know as much about camp meetings as he did. Those lacking that knowledge are likely to feel short-changed by the program notes written by James M. Keller; but grasping even a suggestion of the symphony’s subject matter is likely to allow the attentive listener to make some reasonable guesses about the narrative behind the music.

The fourth symphony, however, is quite another matter. Of the four symphonies it is the one that is unquestionably in the same league as the second (“Concord”) piano sonata. Indeed, on the basis of the biographical chronology, there were at least a few years during which Ives was working on both of these pieces at the same time; and some interesting parallels emerge. Both have four movements (no surprise there). Both have second movements that run rampant across a wide field of sources for appropriation. Both have first movements that begin with firmly assertive conviction and last movements that dissolve into quietude.

However, while the sonata can be given a convincing performance by a pianist with just the right combination of persistence and adventure, the symphony goes right to the threshold of what a single mortal conductor can do; and many would argue that it crosses that threshold. Thus, when Leopold Stokowski made the symphony’s first recording for Columbia, he required two assistance conductors, David Katz and José Serebrier. In Davies MTT did it with only one, his Assistant Conductor Christian Reif. (According to Charles Ives and His Music by Henry and Sidney Cowell, Eugene Goossens internalized the second movement of the fourth symphony accurately enough to conduct it on his own.)

When the fourth symphony was played at Davies, it filled the first half of the program, preceded by the SFS Chorus introducing six of the hymn tunes. This second half consisted entirely of Pinchas Zukerman playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 61 violin concert in D major. As the old joke goes, if Ives had been alive, he probably would have turned over in his grave. Writing about the occasion the next morning, I concluded with the following punch line:
Perhaps the only really satisfying thing one can do after having performed the Ives fourth is to play it again after the intermission.
Less frivolously, it is very hard not to be perplexed by the fourth, particularly if one is encountering it for the first time. However, regardless of past listener experience, the best way to get a hold of what is going on among all those notes and polyrhythms is to listen to the whole thing a second time while memories of the first are still fresh. Fortunately, listeners will be able to pursue that strategy with this new SFS Media release.

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