IN: Reviews

Longy Rings With Modernists


Donald Berman (file photo)
Donald Berman (file photo)

Donald Berman’s faculty debut recital at Pickman Hall of the Longy School of Music of Bard College on Friday night constituted a manifold and eclectic tribute to modern composers. The one who was present, Scott Wheeler, heard his own six short pieces — portraits and tributes, as Berman described them — styled after the many “Portraits” by Virgil Thomson in honor of his friends. Thomson may have been Scott Wheeler’s teacher, but these pieces, short and precise and seemingly slight, struck me as much better than any of Thomson’s I have encountered. Morningside, for Wheeler’s piano teacher Monica Jakuc, was like a polyrhythmic two-part invention, with rumbles of impatience in the middle section, while Pseudo-Rag: GS, written thirty years ago for Gunther Schuller, was an atonal stride-piano piece, short and pungent. To His Music honored Malcolm Peyton of NEC, who was present to hear the middle-register bell chords and Scotch snaps; Cowley Meditation, dedicated to James Woodman of the Cowley Fathers, with an amiable A major and a twittering-bird melody, featured a different kind of low-register bells. By the Sea was the newest of the pieces, composed in 2013 to honor Stephen Sondheim, and making use of motives from Sweeney Todd in F-sharp minor. An Epithalamion for Donald Berman and Meredith Moss, upon their wedding in 1998, featured an abundance of warbling melody and flowing right-hand 16th-notes; I didn’t recognize the Yiddish folksong that was included, but I did recognize the D minor, which the Boston Musicians’ Union catalog, many decades ago, identified as the signal for Jewish wedding music. Study in Concord for Marianne Evett— the title is a double pun—was the last of the portraits, and made us of a meandering melody with the hands two octaves apart. It was a good piece to precede the Ives group that followed the intermission.

Ives’s Study no. 6, according to Berman’s program notes, has a melody that “circles through not quite all available twelve chromatic notes,” with the missing ones appearing in “open triads, peaking above and submerged below this note stream.” This description of chromatic partitioning is perfect; it was characteristic of Ives’s dodecaphonic experimentation even before Schoenberg. The chords themselves mark the time—especially with the sound of two superposed fourths, a favorite of Ives—but Lowell Mason’s “Nearer, my God, to thee” (Bethany) was too evanescent to be perceived in more than one or two notes. (Ives certainly loved the hymns of the Medfield master, as should every New Englander; he certainly deployed them in different works.)

The longest item of the evening was also the grittiest: the first movement, “Emerson,” of Ives’s Second Piano Sonata, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860.” The “Concord” Sonata launched Ives’s national and even international fame when first performed in 1939, even though Ives had completed it—or, rather, stopped working on it—20 years earlier. Maybe not everyone will agree, but the four movements of the Sonata begin with the most problematic, and work their way through to relatively greater clarity in the fourth movement (“Thoreau”). Don Berman has studied Ives’s revisions and sketches thoroughly enough to have confidently assembled, or perhaps reconstructed, an “extended play” version of “Emerson” that lasted more than fifteen minutes, which resulted in not only a mighty performance but a heroic feat of memorization. If I’m still baffled by the piece, I can only cheer Berman for his fearless playing. In all these years I have been dazzled and frightened by “Hawthorne,” charmed by “The Alcotts,” and deeply moved and reassured by “Thoreau,” but I have never been able to wrap my head around “Emerson,” and I think of the “Concord” Sonata as a whole, like the Fourth Symphony, as a poignant demonstration of Ives’s tragedy as a composer. He was not a genius; he was not an expert craftsman or technician. But he was unquestionably a great visionary, one quite without historical parallel, and he saw into the future, and into an oneiric universe of music, with uncanny courage and intensity, like the American transcendentalist that he was. In his time, there was hardly anyone, even among expert fellow composers and friends, who followed or could have followed more than a short distance along his self-chosen path, or understood his most significant accomplishments, still less given him the feedback or encouragement that every composer needs. The result is a multitude of unfinished works, with only a handful that show the necessary craftsmanship—Ives knew that he had to try and try again to get it right, and he tried. In many ways, I think the First Sonata is more successful than the Second, for just this reason. But the “Concord,” time and again, gives forth flashes of imagination that are worthy of the best that music has to offer; and Schoenberg, who was born in the same year as Ives, was close to the mark when he wrote of Ives that “he has solved the problem of how to be one’s self and how to learn.”

Scott Wheeler (Susan Wilson photo)
Scott Wheeler (Susan Wilson photo)

After the heavy cannonade of “Emerson” it was a relief to hear Ives’s Waltz Rondo, which was delightfully parodistic, combining a Moszkowski-like sentimentality and glitter with Ives’s more familiar battering-chord style in successive sections. This was followed by March no. 5, with Annie Lisle, a virtuoso piece from Ives’s years at Yale (the melody of “Annie Lisle” is better known to every Ivy League graduate as “Down beside Cayuga’s waters”). Both of these pieces showed Ives’s irrepressible penchant for comedy, and Berman carried them off with effortless aplomb. We heard an encore, too—another tribute by Scott Wheeler, For Steve, honoring a physician and friend.

The program began with two short pieces by Luciano Berio, Luftklavier and Wasserklavier from Six Encores; the “air piano” was more flowing, impressionistic and watery, while the “water piano” was more airy, ruminative, and E minor. These alternated with two Barcarolles by Gabriel Fauré (honoring Fauré’s pupil Nadia Boulanger, who in turn honored the Longy School in the 1940s). The A minor Barcarolle, op. 26, distributes its Spanish-like melody in the middle register surrounded by upper and lower arpeggios; the op. 66 Barcarolle is esoteric and difficult to follow in its rambling 9/8 phrase structure and constant modulation, but with mysteriously expressive chromatic harmony. Fauré’s weakness, in his Schumann-inspired piano writing, was a too-dependable arpeggiated accompanimental style that lacks rhythmic variety; this isn’t an impediment in his lovely songs, which are all short, but it can be a problem in the longer piano solos and especially in the chamber music. But it’s well compensated by the harmonic originality, which is characteristically French, and which set the tone for a generation of later composers.

Ed. Note: DeVoto and Berman were colleagues for many years at Tufts.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I especially enjoyed the Wheeler pieces. Almost too short, but very special.
    Hats off to the pianist who had to follow the awful Longy happy birthday video introduction. Mediocre idea done badly.

    Comment by Aaron — January 16, 2016 at 5:57 pm

  2. I’m very sorry that other commitments kept me from this recital. Don Berman is a fantastic pianist, and his commitment to the music of Ives is one of the major adornments of the Boston musical scene. I am also partial to Scott Wheeler’s music and I’m sure Don played those pieces as well as anybody could.

    However, I can’t let Mark DeVoto’s derogatory comments about Ives pass unrebutted. They reflect, sadly, a point of view dating back 35 years or more and not the great insights provided by scholars like Jan Swafford and Peter Burkholder, to say nothing of the increasingly expert performances the music has received. Ives was anything but technically deficient: his scores bear close analysis, since even the ones containing the most anarchic-sounding textures and sonorities (which incidentally were a relatively small part of his output) were meticulously plotted to the last detail and follow logical trajectories to strong emotional climaxes. The fact that this careful craftsmanship was put in service of a broad artistic vision, with results that grab the listener by the lapels and sometimes by the throat, is, indeed, evidence of genius. Ives was the greatest composer America has yet produced, because that confluence of inspiration, skill and audacity produced works that can truly move their listeners.

    Comment by Vance Koven — January 17, 2016 at 12:14 pm

  3. Indeed, I agree with much, even most, of what Vance says, especially that Ives was the greatest composer that America has yet produced. He had a good deal of technique, too, which he acquired by hard work and good instruction (Horatio Parker’s class at Yale), and this shows up especially in the works that he worked on most assiduously, like the Third Violin Sonata — even in the Piano Trio in which he made an effort to be alternatively farcical and very serious. (The Second Symphony has fine ideas and a big scope, but orchestrally it doesn’t work nearly as well as it should — I think Ives put it on the shelf.) Where Ives swings and misses most disastrously, I think, is in the “Comedy” movement of the Fourth Symphony, and especially in such works as he continuously revised and could never get to his own satisfaction, like the fourth movement of that symphony, and in the “Concord” Sonata where even two printed versions didn’t suffice. That view may be an older one, but I don’t think it has been successfully or completely rebutted; and it was Elliott Carter who professed bafflement at the high proportion of “undifferentiated confusion.” I’m worried that that applies to “Emerson” as well, because there is so much of it that strikes me as really unfinished, as an extended example of where I doubt that Ives understood what he was doing. Don Berman’s performance was bold, but the music itself still doesn’t convince me.

    It’s tragic, too, that Ives couldn’t and didn’t get enough performances of his own music that would enable him to hear more precisely where the weaknesses were, and to gain some idea of what he might do to remedy them. Yet he waited 40 years to hear the Third Symphony, and saw it win a Pulitzer Prize after its first performance — richly deserved. I don’t think he had much chance to hear very many of his miniatures, like Over the Pavements or Hallowe’en, which are wonderful, though maybe he did hear The Unanswered Question, which has become a favorite. Some of Ives’s experimental music is very tantalizing, such as the microtonal Like a Sick Eagle, but other pieces are probably better left unperformed, such as Chromatimelodtune, which is of theoretical interest but really sounds pretty terrible, despite Gunther Schuller’s careful reconstruction. I think Ives had better luck with his songs, most of which are superb and just as radically visionary as anything of his; and yet one doesn’t hear of a lot of performances of his songs in his time, either.

    Ives needs to be defended, like all twentieth-century composers, but I don’t think he’s in any danger, and we all have benefited from his pioneering. I admire Stravinsky’s words about him — “…he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before anyone else had even found a seat at the same table. But to me personally these innovations are of less moment than my discovery in him of a new awareness of America.”

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — January 17, 2016 at 6:29 pm

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