Sunday having been Charles Ives’s 139th birthday, violinist Daniel Stepner, mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore, and pianist Donald Berman threw him a party in the form of an all-Ives concert on (take a deep breath) the Leichtman Performance Stage of the Distler Performance Hall of the Granoff Music Center at Tufts University.
To get the disclosure and apologia business out of the way, your correspondent is a major Ives fanboy and has been since high school, half a century ago, when among his first LP purchases was the Bernstein (then the only) recording of the Second Symphony. Of the three performers on Sunday’s program, Berman and Stepner are also known as dedicated Ivesians, the former having studied with Ives scholar John Kirkpatrick (who premiered the Concord Sonata in 1939), and the two of whom have (separately) recorded a good deal of Ives, Stepner a complete set of the violin sonatas with Kirkpatrick.
It would be interesting to know how many of the fair-sized crowd who turned up Sunday were not already familiar with Ives, as there has been a somewhat cultish quality to how Ives has been received in his own country. This is a shame, since it is at least seriously arguable that, not only in his pioneering, which is really no more than a detail, but in the breadth of his ambition, the subtlety of his methods, and the cathartic emotional persuasiveness of his results, Ives was the greatest composer America has yet produced, and one of the pantheon of the world’s greatest. And right here, on our New England doorstep!
The concert began with Kirkpatrick’s reconstruction of what apparently was the original violin-piano version of the “Decoration Day” movement better known from the orchestral Four New England Holidays. While the program booklet has the date of composition as 1919, dating Ives’s work has always been a vexation, since he often took years to finish a piece and then tinkered with it for many years afterwards. Since the orchestral form of this movement is often given a 1912 date, that 1919 at least demanded more than the zero explanation it got. One fascinating aspect of hearing the chamber version (a prodigious act of condensation in itself) is the ability to perceive clear lines in music that often hides behind the wisps and boulders of Ives’s orchestral textures. It also supports the theme Stepner pursued in his program note that underneath, or alongside, the thorny dissonances Ives sometimes (but not always) employed was an essentially lyrical gift. Stepner’s performance was certainly lyrical, though it sometimes seemed less than forward, with vibrato more appropriate for 18th than late-19th or early-20th century music (especially when competing with the massive piano parts Ives wrote). Berman achieved excellent coloristic effects while also bringing out many inner lines and some gorgeous harmonic progressions that too often get lost in orchestral performance.
Berman returned for a solo, this of four brief “transcriptions” of elements best known as the “Emerson” movement from the Piano Sonata No. 2 (Concord, Mass. 1840-1860), but which started life as part of an orchestral overture or tone poem on the protean figure of Ralph Waldo Emerson. With mostly connected thematic material, including the famous Ivesian meme of the motif that, in Ives’s punning way, could be the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the hymn tune “Missionary Chant” by Charles Zeuner. Ives’s working out of these materials is quite varied, despite the preponderance of slow tempi, and includes some anachronistic ragtime touches in the third movement. Berman was once again decisive and lucid in his performance, ranging widely from the stentorian opening to the gentlest caresses, and brilliantly conjuring great rolling waves of sound in the second movement.
The first half ended with the first, and longest, of three song sets, this one comprising “The Children’s Hour,” “Memories,” “Ann Street,” “An Old Flame,” and “Charlie Rutlage.” All of these came from Ives’s self-published set of 114 (which is far from his entire output). All three of the song sets on this program were well chosen for variety of moods and styles and for the range of composition dates and artistic ambitions. Not every song Schubert wrote was “Der Erlkönig,” and not every song Ives wrote had the power and audacity of “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” Yet, virtually every one has a spark of invention, typically, in the basically diatonic and “popular” or sentimental tunes like “Children’s Hour” and “An Old Flame,” a rhythmic idiosyncrasy or a piano harmony that doesn’t quite “go” with the vocal part. “Children’s Hour,” after Longfellow, juxtaposes an almost monotone vocal line with a complex piano part that supplies much of the emotive content that the words and vocal line only hint at. A frequent contributor to Boston’s early-music output who is no stranger to Ives, Rentz-Moore has a smooth, steady, refined tone with solid intonation and generally fine diction. She excelled in those genuine or mock (one never knows with Ives) sentimental ballads, and in some of the more straightforwardly dramatic numbers, but the pattering in the first part of “Memories” was more than she could clearly spit out, and despite a valiant attempt at a Southwestern accent in the cowboy song “Charlie Rutlage” her instrument is sometimes just too well-oiled for the rough playfulness Ives sometimes demands. Berman, being an experienced Ives hand (or pair of hands), was impeccably idiomatic and stalwart in his sometimes crushingly difficult part (as in the “stampede” music for “Rutlage”).
The second half began with the largest single work on the program, the Violin Sonata No. 3. This is the only one out of Ives’s four completed works in this form that got a contemporaneous public performance, at a concert Ives arranged at Carnegie Hall. He also made a point of couching the work in a harmonic language more accessible to audiences of the day, and for this reason he referred to it in his autobiographical “Memos” as the “weak sister” of the set. It is, however, a fully realized and, in its way, typically Ivesian work, replete with quoted and paraphrased hymns and ditties, with an unusual verse and chorus structure in the opening movement, where each verse is a small development section. It also features ragtime allusions that would have set his audiences back in their seats (side note: experimenting with American popular idioms was not entirely new in 1914; John Alden Carpenter’s violin sonata of 1912 has a movement heavily influenced by the blues). The finale is in classic Ivesian backwards form: development (or variations) leading back to a simple statement of the theme at the end. Stepner and Berman were both superb.
Two sets of songs followed, the first for voice and piano containing “Two Little Flowers,” “At the River,” and “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” The latter is an arrangement Ives made of the finale of his orchestral Three Places in New England, while the middle one derives from the finale of the Violin Sonata No. 4. The last set added violin, sometimes as an obbligato doubling of the voice, sometimes doing its own thing, for “Old Home Day, “ “Sunrise” and “He is there!” “Housatonic” is one of Ives’s most atmospheric and evocative creations, using the same musical materials to depict both the placid and misty upper reaches of the Massachusetts Berkshires’ most famous river, but also its inevitable crashing into the sea at industrial Milford, Connecticut. “Sunrise,” given here the date 1936, was Ives’s last completed song, and it is striking in the austerity of its texture. Had Ives’s health permitted him to continue writing (he was only 62 at the time, and lived to nearly 80), one wonders whether this paring down of means would have proven a new phase of his stylistic development. In “Old Home Day” and “He is there!” Ives waxed sentimental and patriotic, but did not neglect to put a final flourish in, whereby the violin, standing in as the town band, continued after “the end” for a beat or two. “He is there!” is a piece of World War I propaganda, which Ives touchingly, and with characteristic naïveté, offered to the government to use to boost morale (its refusal suggests that someone had considered how all the rhythmic complexity and polytonality was going to affect the morale of anyone singing it). The performances were consistent with what we observed earlier, but Rentz-Moore put much improved oomph into the boisterous moments of “Old Home Day” and “He is there!” creating a most satisfying conclusion to their program.
This being Ives the cantankerous Yankee, of course it had to be the birthday boy who got the last word. For an encore, then, instead of performing something themselves, the players, along with the rest of the audience, heard a recording of Ives accompanying himself in a rousing, jagged and over-the-top rendition of his 1942 update to “He is there!” for World War II, the necessity for which must have given great pain to the last of the Transcendentalists.