There aren’t many octogenarians on this planet who have the energy and chutzpah to program and conduct a concert of eighteen challenging Charles Ives compositions a week before turning 86. Gunther Schuller, however, has made a seventy-year career of initiating and accomplishing the extraordinary, and on Wednesday November 16 at Tsai Performance Center, leading B.U.’s resident contemporary music ensemble, Alea III, accomplishing the extraordinary is just what the iconic American conductor and composer did.
To begin the concert, Schuller, appearing relaxed and in his element, ambled onto the stage, had a seat on the chair from which he conducted, and leaned back over his shoulder to ask the audience if there was enough light in the house to read his evocative program notes while we listened.
The music began with the astonishing From the Steeples and The Mountains (1901), a piece written for trumpet, trombone, and a large number of tubular bells. As the conductor informed the house in an impromptu introduction before he began, twenty-four of the bells Ives specified in his score did not even exist at the time the piece was composed, and they still do not exist. To compensate, Schuller re-orchestrated the work to include almglocken (pitched, resonant cow bells) and piano. Steeples features a shimmering lattice of bell tremolos which transforms into a fog of brass counterpoint and glistening resonance. The piece climaxes in a bubbling cluster, which bursts and wafts away like cool mist. Directly following this breathtaking, perfectly executed musical event, Schuller could be heard exclaiming, “Wow!”, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
The conductor’s quirky, casual demeanor was in stark contrast to the seriousness and exactitude with which he approached this hallowed cornerstone of the American canon. Having attended one of the final rehearsals, I saw that it is clear that Schuller was demanding and precise in his approach to Ives and has an uncompromising vision for this music’s implementation. Rather than a distraction, his frequent off-the-cuff quips provided something of an informal, theatrical tone, embodying Ives’s effervescent whimsy, which in the composer’s music is often juxtaposed with his probing curiosity and intellect.
Schuller then proceeded enthusiastically to wave five more players onto the stage for Calcium Light Night (1907), a programmatic depiction of two groups of students on the Yale campus who are crossing paths while singing two different society tunes in different keys. Various wind instruments intone the folksy march-like melodies of the songs as the fragments overlap and compete in vivid, sometimes shrieking counterpoint. As the program notes described, the piece is composed in a palindromic form, reaching an intense climax in the middle and then gradually receding back to the silence from which it began. The use of contrapuntal, Americana-invoking quotations is one of the recurring devices in Ives’s music that has contributed to his popularity and his stature as one of the first great American composers. However, his employment of exuberant nineteenth-century folk songs is only one small element of the appeal. The charm and magic in Ives’s quotation-based compositions is not purely in the quotations — anyone can quote an infectious melody — it is in the electrifying, satisfying way in which he constructs, develops, and orchestrates the material. The wit and mastery of Ives’ idiosyncratic, bitonal counterpoint transcends its origins, and the music becomes part of a stew that is Ives’s alone.
Recordings of Ives are important elements of his legacy, especially as these pieces are rarely performed, even in the Northeastern U.S. where the composer resided for his entire life. But in witnessing this music in person, one is ever more struck by the mastery of his craft and the realization that this music must be experienced in live settings. Even at its most dense, there is a transparent clarity to Ives’s orchestration and counterpoint that can only be appreciated in a concert hall.
When acoustically spaced as intended, the perfect timing of the composers’ dynamic shapes and gestures causes them to leap from stage to audience in a way that cannot be replicated by a home stereo or headphones. A similar observation might be made about the music of many great concert composers, but in Ives’s case, due to the thick, colorful nature of many of these works, the advantage of the concert-listening experience is particularly pronounced.
The above observation pertained to numerous pieces on this program, many of which fell into the one- to two-minute range. At one point in the first half, Schuller instructed the audience to keep our applause brief, or “the applause will be longer than the pieces!” After The See’r (1913), a highly-syncopated one-minute work with disparate strains of marching music and ragtime, Schuller leaned over his shoulder to the house and exclaimed, “Let’s do that one again!” There were no objections. Though Ives manages to achieve a satisfying completeness in these miniatures, their rich complexity begs repeated listening. Like many great works of art, this music seems to contain an endless opportunity for discovery, from the surface level to the form and design.
Several of the pieces on the program were songs that Ives rearranged for instrumental ensemble. In these cases, the English horn is usually given the song’s vocal melody. One example of this is Like a Sick Eagle (1909), in which the strings are used to depict the state of a wounded bird. In most composers’ hands a concept like this would be hokey, grating, or both, but Ives transcends the potential silliness and the sum of these parts, resulting in a humorous, yet melancholic miniature tone poem. English hornist Miri Kudo’s warm tone was song-like as intended, skillfully capturing the essence of the pastoral setting, and first violinist Julia Cash’s “sick bird sounds” were particularly effective.
Two of the other highlights of the program were “Chorale” from Ives’s Three Quarter Tone Pieces (1924) for piano, and The Unanswered Question (1908), Ives’s beloved six-minute chamber masterpiece. Many of the harmonic moments in the former can elicit physical reactions for those unaccustomed to microtonal music; they often caused me to shift in my chair or tense my spine. Of course, much microtonal music has been written in the time since Ives experimented with this language, but his approach still sounds unique and ear-turning. As Schuller described, the material is something like Wagnerian chromaticism and counterpoint with twenty-four tones to the octave. Accordingly, the piece was given lush, detailed treatment by ubiquitous new music pianists Yukiko Shimazaki and Donald Berman.
The Unanswered Question begins with a soft, mysterious but inviting tonal chorale of muted strings. Against this warm backdrop, which Ives said represents “the Silence of the Druids — who Know, See and Hear Nothing,” a trumpet repeatedly recites a non-tonal ascending melody representing humankind’s “Perennial Question of Existence.” In a call-and-response pattern, a quartet of woodwinds makes several attempts at assembling a coherent answer and becomes increasingly flustered and incomprehensible. By the end of the piece, nothing is solved; we are no closer to easing the anxiety of the unknown.
The Unanswered Question stands as one of the great masterworks of the early twentieth century, a gripping, programmatic juxtaposition of two distinct harmonic idioms and an abstract representation of Ives’s New England Transcendentalist aesthetics. As with many of the pieces on the program, Schuller and Alea III’s rendering gave the impression of effortlessness, despite the numerous challenges in realizing such a performance. Trumpeter Peter Nelson-King gracefully conveyed the plaintive innocence of man’s perpetual inquiry, and the woodwind choir was vibrant and precise as elsewhere on the program.
Additional kudos are in order for two-man percussion section, Thomas Schmidt and Jonathan Hess, whose meticulous, spirited performances equipped the ensemble with the high-octane underpinning essential to many of these pieces. In all, this unique portrait concert provided a diverse and exciting representation of one of America’s greatest composers. One can only hope that it will inspire other local groups of various sizes to tackle Ives’s formidable, but profoundly rewarding catalog.