Charles Ives cheerfully ignored boundaries and received wisdom, writing music primarily to satisfy his own enthusiasms, and still pushed music forward in the process. It takes a group like the Post-Classical Ensemble, equally committed to ignoring boundaries and received wisdom, to fully embrace and encompass his achievements.
Charles Ives, in all his splendor. Photo by W. Eugene Smith from the Charles Ives Papers at Yale
Specifically, in the P-CE’s “Ives Project,” it took three days of concerts, lectures, and a masterclass, plus guest appearances from pianist Jeremy Denk and baritone William Sharp. Due to work and other demands, I was not able to show as much commitment to the Ives Project as the P-CE did, but I caught both Thursday and Friday’s concerts at the Music Center at Strathmore.
At most P-CE concerts, artistic director Joseph Horowitz strides on stage at some point to explain to the audience what they will hear or have just heard. Thursday’s program, “Charles Ives: A Life in Music,” obviated such discourse by presenting contextual information from Ives’ own writings or other contemporary sources. Actors Carolyn Goelzer and the redoubtable Floyd King helped make the words come alive, so that Ives discussing his childhood enthusiasm for the circus naturally prepared us for his song “The Circus Band.” There were no gaps in the program where people got themselves ready to read or play; everything snapped into place, making a two-hour concert fly by.
Baritone Sharp had the lion’s share of the musical duties on Thursday, and he used his flexible, rich voice with keen intelligence to make his songs into vivid stories in themselves. He sang naturally and directly, without distorting vowels or other classical-vocalist cheats, which Ives surely would have appreciated. He burst with childlike enthusiasm in “The Circus Band,” but sounded just as natural navigating the landscape of Ives’ setting of “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” negotiating tricky intervals to express both aesthetic pleasures and awe, or hectoring his listeners with the broad, brutal satire of “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.”
For most of the first half, Denk accompanied Sharp on piano. Two settings of Herman Almers’ “Feldeinsamkeit,” first that of Johannes Brahms and then that of the young Ives, came off especially well, with the second providing convincing evidence for the assertion King read us that the 24-year-old Ives’ effort merited consideration alongside that of the German master. Denk’s enthusiasm for both Brahms and Ives came across in his sensitive phrasing and limpid tone, and Sharp’s voice sounded its most honeyed and gorgeous.
Sharp also had some help from the PostClassical Ensemble, conducted by the P-CE’s music director Angel Gil-Ordonez. Five songs whose accompaniment John Adams has transcribed for orchestra got intimate sounds from Sharp and the ensemble, especially when Sharp read the introduction to “Thoreau” as woodwinds and strings described a strange but rapt pastoral. The ensemble got some time alone to play a couple of Ives’ lesser-known short orchestral pieces, “In the Inn” and “Over the Pavements,” digging deep into Ives’ rough invention and, especially atop the pavements, his gleefully contrasting rhythms.
The concert opened and closed with “The Unanswered Question,” with its querent harmonies in the strings, offstage woodwind murmurs and outbursts, and the implacable five-note solo trumpet utterance, here played with serene eloquence by Chris Gekker. Emerging from silence and a low-lit hall, it focused the attention immediately; as a closer, reflecting and reflected in all that had come before, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Another canny trick of programming in an evening full of them.
Friday’s program put Denk in the spotlight, playing Ives’ second piano sonata (subtitled “Concord, Mass., 1840-60″) and the “Hammerklavier,” the bangingest of the piano sonatas by Ives’ beloved Beethoven, back to back. This is a hell of a difficult program, but one Denk evidently finds rewarding, given that he toured with it a couple years ago (including a stop in the DMV) and still wanted to do it again.
Jeremy Denk, always thinking about music even in the presence of ripe tomatoes
The P-CE dressed it up a bit. Sharp came back to read from Ives, Emerson, and Thoreau before each of the sonata’s four depictions of leading lights of Concord. These put one in a properly Transcendental mood before Denk’s performances. His program notes for the sonata (excerpted from his notes for his Ives CD, which is worth a purchase) outlined his thoughts on its major landmarks and threads, and his performance made you understand why he, artistic director Horowitz, and other iconoclastic souls love this sonata so much.
Ives wrote the sonata on a broad canvas, and its forms are all generated from his ideas: the rhetoric of “Emerson,” building itself up from pronouncements and gestures; the wildness of “Hawthorne,” from spooky to out-of-control; the heaven-seeking purity of the main theme of “The Alcotts”; a hazy dawn and subsequent day at Walden Pond in “Thoreau.” The sonata’s quotations — the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth most prominent among them — make it sound like Ives is trying to gather into the sonata everything in the world, particularly in the Alcotts, which reminded me of spending hours messing around on a keyboard seeing what kinds of sounds can be made and occasionally finding something extraordinary. Denk expertly balanced narrative elements against each other; he coaxed myriad colors from his piano (which had to be retuned at intermission from the stress); most of all, he found fascinating moments each movement and showed us how one can connect them.
Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” should be a perfect analogue from the previous century: ambitious, lengthy, fearsomely difficult, and ultimately lowercase-T transcendent. Unfortunately, on Friday, Denk didn’t really have it under his fingers. It would be almost impossible not to drop or mis-hit a note or two during a performance of “Hammerklavier,” but Denk was doing it so much that the beginnings of favorite passages became occasions for anxiety: is he going to get through this? He also took the slow movement, marked “Adagio sostenuto” (“slow and sustained”), at a brisk walk that crossed the line from idiosyncrasy into incorrectness, particularly when Denk himself occasionally slowed down during variations only to return to the faster tempo.
Still, I’ll remember that Concord Sonata for a long time, and it added to Thursday’s picture of Ives, here working in a longer form and accumulating power over that span. (I wish I could have attended Saturday’s concert, in which the JACK Quartet essayed Ives along with contemporary composers, to see the additional light such a juxtaposition would throw on Ives’ music.) The frustrating thing about Ives’ infrequent appearances in American concert halls is that it’s not difficult to understand what he’s up to; you just have to be open to hearing it. Denk, Sharp, and the P-CE made it easy to love Ives this weekend, and I hope some people in the audience felt it too.
IN CASE YOU DON’T KNOW
Jeremy Denk’s blog is always worth a read. Better than this one!
Charles Ives was quite a fine writer too, which is part of why Thursday’s concert worked so well. If you’re getting into the Concord Sonata, Ives’ Essays Before a Sonata are worth reading. And they’re free, here.
Updated to add Other People’s Perspectives: Cecilia Porter on Thursday’s concert, and Charles T. Downey on Saturday’s. I knew the latter was going to be good!