in: Reviews

August 14, 2012

One Icon Illuminates Another at Tanglewood


Gunther Schuller leads Ives (Hilary Scott photo)

Garbed in a bright red and green plaid jacket and shod in dark Birkenstocks, renowned composer Gunther Schuller slowly made his way on to the Ozawa Hall stage Saturday evening, August 11th. Though his walking may be a bit unsteady these days, none of his renowned intellectual curiosity and informed musicianship is similarly slowed. In fact, his powers of persuasion created an extraordinary Prelude Concert devoted entirely to the remarkable music of Charles Ives, the great American musical visionary and insurance industry mogul. There could be no more apt advocate for this iconic American composer than Gunther Schuller, who has proselytized for and performed Ives’s extraordinary catalog of music for some 50 years. Fittingly, many of Schuller’s peers from the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music were in attendance. The program was beautifully played by the young instrumentalists of the Tanglewood Music Center, all who were totally on top of their many challenging assignments.

Some may think that Charles Ives is hardly a “contemporary” composer, having been born some 138 years ago. To them I say: listen. No other American composer regularly brought such a wide variety of almost Byzantine complexity to his sound, and then, turning on a dime, such haunting stillness. Occasionally, both of these things — and many others — happen within the span of one work. In his spoken introduction to the concert, Schuller wondered aloud at the complexity of some of the scores he was about to conduct: “There’s always so much going on. It’s often impossible to hear and understand everything Ives is doing with just one hearing.” Schuller also spoke of the enormous variety within the evening’s program, which he divided into halves. The first half brought works of a chamber nature and of quite short duration, some as short as 90 seconds. The second half offered music requiring a few more players as well as a work or two that would span as long as 16 minutes.

Calcium Light Night, one of many “mood” vignettes that Ives wrote, began and ended the concert. It is, as are so many of this composer’s short works, a marvel of concision and densely packed notes. Those notes begin quietly with a distant and slow march-like tread heard in tone clusters from the pianoforte. From this, a crescendo and accelerando eventually emerge conjoined, during which instruments are added into the mix, playing bits and pieces of music, some recognizable from other Ives works, some as contemporary tunes of his times, all moving toward a ff peak mid-work. From that point, the piece unwinds in a mirror-like reflection of the music’s first half, played in reverse order, loud evolving to soft, dense texture unraveling to filamentous, quick tempo moving to slow. I was pleased to detect the flute playing at the beginning and end a fragment of the “Riding Down from Bangor,” the DKE fraternity marching tune from Circus Band.

Next up was Scherzo: All the Way Around and Back, which Jan Swafford’s excellent program notes explained was “…a baseball take-off going around the bases (Ives called it a ‘practice scrimmage).” Like a Sick Eagle followed, its lamentoso mood conveyed by downward sliding first-violin arpeggios. Swafford’s notes told that this was a work written in response to the composer’s wife’s near-fatal illness. Several other piquant short works ensued. Of these, Adagio Sostenuto was memorable for its opening chord, which sounded positively “commercial” before the music quickly departed for other climes, one of which had a briefly Coplandesque color. Schuller then led Scherzo: The Seer twice, his reason being that the music was “so joyous.” It was indeed, with its raggy nature and a pungent whiff of parody. It also sported improved ensemble the second time. With the playing of the very short Ann Street, the concert paused as additional musicians came on stage for the second half.

The works played moved from one miraculous piece to another, beginning with the very atmospheric The Pond with soft bell strokes sounded over strings hovering in slow-moving stasis, at the end of which one detected sounds of wonderment from the audience. There followed The Unanswered Question, in which a solo trumpet’s “interrogative,” played eloquently by David Cohen,  is “replied” to by the woodwinds, all surrounded by a halo of non-vibrato string chords. The trumpet repeatedly intones its solo “question,” each time answered by increasingly agitated woodwinds, which by the penultimate question, sound positively beside themselves with impatience. The trumpet stubbornly plays its solo one final time. Now its question is met with silence. Only the imperturbable strings remain, ultimately and ever so slowly to fade into the great beyond. No wonder this has become Ives’s most popular work. It received the most eloquent performance that I have ever heard.

A Gunther Schuller candid (Nicholas Anagnostis photo)

A review of so many wonderful brief pieces runs the risk of evolving into a “…and then they played…” summation, yet the wonders abounded so tellingly that one or two further mentions must be made. Set No. 2 for Theatre Orchestra is a three-movement work whose highlight for me was the last, entitled “In the Night.” An offstage flute floated beautifully by Pamela Daniels, with a softly malleted vibraphone adding its quavering sonorities, balanced a long, low horn solo played evocatively by Andrew Mee. Strings in peaceful stasis once again surrounded them all. Largo The Indians told its sad tale of racial erasure accompanied by the soft throbbing of an Indian drum and a sinuous oboe solo, played from the heart by Caroline Scharr. The piece ends abruptly — was that Ives being particularly illustrative? The complex Scherzo Over the Pavements raced along towards its brief ragtime-Macadamed ending; The Rainbow offered its arched color display; and the ca. 1923 Chromâtimemelôdtune, based on metric groupings of seven impulses, utilized all 12 notes of the chromatic scale at just about the same time Arnold Schoenberg was inventing in Germany his soon-to-be-(in)famous technique of composition. Jan Swafford’s notes told us this, plus the facts that the music was never finished, and that it would be played in Schuller’s reconstruction/arrangement.

This would have made the perfect ending to this amazing concert had not Schuller decided to repeat the piece that opened the program, due, he said, to some “accidents” which had occurred that he wanted to remedy. Thank goodness he made this decision, for what followed was scarily impressive. As the newly-improved performance of Calcium Light Night arrived at its very final note, a microburst descended on Ozawa Hall, its precipitously low pressure nature causing each of the hall’s several side doors to swing open and then shut in perfect unison. Could this have been Charles Ives’s cantankerous spirit entering and leaving the hall, intent on adding its two cents, where so much of his music had just been so superbly performed? One would not have been surprised.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 34 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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