We’ll not beat around the bush: the place to have been on December 5th was at Jordan Hall for the New England Conservatory Philharmonia’s performance of the Ives Holidays Symphony, preceded by the Sibelius Seventh Symphony.
That order of mention was deliberate, but we’ll go back to program order in describing the event. The Sibelius Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105, dates from 1924 and was his last completed work in that genre, in many ways also his most unusual. It took him some time before he reluctantly agreed to call it a symphony (its premiere in late 1924 was billed as a “symphonic fantasy”): in one 20-25 minute movement, it has been described as standing conventional symphonic procedure on its head. Instead of having a variety of themes in contrasting keys that develop under the umbrella of a more or less constant tempo, this one presents its materials, most of which are related to one or two principal motives (to call them “themes” would be an extravagance), pretty much all in C major or C minor, and then developing them through carefully varying tempi. Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 does something vaguely similar, but there weren’t many precedents even by Sibelius’s time.
Regardless of its formal and technical eccentricities, the symphony is a grand summation, in a remarkably compact package, of the composer’s major preoccupations: the great northern forests, the place of humanity in nature, longing, remorse, wonderment. Some commentators have speculated that Sibelius, having realized he couldn’t top this work in its perfect expression of his thoughts, gave up attempting an eighth symphony, at which he famously labored for decades before consigning his manuscripts to the flames. The principal motive-theme of the Seventh (which is announced by the solo trombone and recurs intact at key moments) bore, in Sibelius’s sketches, his wife’s name, Aino; it is developed in ways that suggest gratitude (among other things) for her sorely tested devotion.
Because of the symphony’s compactness and its emotional and technical complexity, a superior performance requires close and subtle attention to color, balance, tempi, dynamics and architecture. Under conductor David Loebel, the orchestra played with superb tone and ensemble, yet was lacking in some of these elements. The first entrance of the Aino theme, beautifully rendered by trombonist Joseph Marsala, was nearly covered by the strings, though it was much better at its triumphant return near the end. The entire and substantial brass section, we should mention, performed admirably. Also on the plus side, Loebel did not, as some conductors do, stretch the terse ending—a magical moment in which a C major-seventh chord substitutes for the dominant before very briefly returning to the tonic.
At intermission, we observed that the population of the first six or so rows at Jordan Hall, occupied in the first half largely by something called the “President’s Ensemble Dinner Guests” (so said the reservation sheets tacked to the backs of the seats), thinned considerably between the Sibelius and the Ives. These “Rollos,” to use Ives’s droll term, among whom we observed several composers, did themselves no less than Ives an injustice by giving the second half of the program the slip. What followed intermission was not to be missed.
Initially, we worried that the lack of subtlety in the Sibelius would mar the Ives, but in fact it was a baseless fear, suggesting that the Sibelius had suffered relatively owing to the attention lavished on the Ives; perhaps a less demanding opening work would have been advisable under the circumstances.
The Holidays Symphony (properly, A Symphony: New England Holidays) bears a designation, like that of the Sibelius, only reluctantly authorized by the composer (he did not include it among his numbered symphonies, of which the Fourth followed the now century-old Holidays by four years). The pieces were written as individual tone poems, the earliest (“Thanksgiving”) as early as 1897, and together amount to Ives’s Four Seasons, with the progression from winter (“Washington’s Birthday”) to spring (“Decoration Day”) to summer (“Fourth of July”) to fall. Instead of describing the work, we’ll point you to the excellent Wikipedia entry here.
Our only amendment is to mention the fact that “Thanksgiving” includes a chorus part, from the hymn “God! Beneath thy guiding hand,” sung by the NEC Chamber Chorus under Erica Washburn, as well as those in the audience game enough to sing along with the music inserted in the program (Loebel conducted a mini-rehearsal before the performance).
While all concert music should be heard live, in the case of Ives—and most of all in his “late period” works—it is doubly imperative to appreciate the ingenuity behind the layered complexity, and as a lagniappe each performance offers something new, depending as much on hall acoustics and wind direction as conductorial choices. The performance Wednesday under Loebel with, in the third movement, the assistance of Sarah Kidd, was beyond our wildest expectations. Major orchestras lack the cojones and perhaps the budget to program late Ives (our memory does not in fact conjure a single live performance of Holidays in Boston over the last 40 years), and the NEC Phil made of it a transcendent experience. All the detail, clarity and nuance elided from the Sibelius was present in abundance in the Ives. The slow, quiet openings of the first three movements and the similar closings of all four were thrillingly presented, and even at the music’s densest, most complex moments, all the lines were astonishingly clear. Technique apart, this performance was intensely felt, with everyone evidencing the joy, reflection, glory and, in the final movement, exaltation that this masterpiece offers. There were too many individual contributors to mention here, but there was nothing that fell short anywhere. Ives is America’s greatest composer to date, worthy of a high place in the international pantheon, and these remarkable student performers gave ample reason to demand more frequent opportunities for even Rollo to get the message. You can get at least part of the message as well, as this performance has just been put up by NEC on its Instant Encore page, here.