The locales of Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England are all plein air, so what better venue for Ives’s work than Tanglewood? Especially since the last of the trio, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, is set just five miles away.
Thanks to an alert reader I learned that under guest conductor Thomas Adès Sunday, Three Places received its fifth performance in the the Tanglewood grounds. Richard Burgin, Michael Tilson Thomas, Seiji Ozawa, Ingo Metzmacher, James Levine, and Bruce Hangen have led it at Symphony Hall (And kudos to Keith Lockhart for doing “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” with the Pops.) Tilson Thomas greatly championed this piece — of all Ives’s music, actually. A live January 1970 performance with the BSO is preserved on a fine ICA Classics DVD (accompanied by the Sibelius Fourth and “Dawn & Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Götterdämmerung); the studio recording Tilson Thomas made with the BSO shortly thereafter is still available from Deutsche Grammophon. And Levine included the piece on the BSO’s late-summer European tour in 2007.
The rest of the afternoon — Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with American/Israeli soloist Inon Barnatan, and the master’s Pastoral Symphony — was more conventional, as if to reassure the audience that conventional meter, rhythm, and tonality still exist. But the Pastoral continued the outdoor theme, and the entire program was a meditation on the concept of time. Besides which, all three works are masterpieces. And the performances ranged from very good to truly outstanding.
Three Places in New England got its first performance, in the composer’s own chamber-orchestra version, at New York’s Town Hall in 1931. (Ives’s original version for full orchestra wasn’t heard till 1974.) But the trio’s roots go back much farther. The “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and His Colored Regiment) was started in the summer of 1911. The title reference is to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-black Civil War unit that, under its white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, formed after the Emancipation Proclamation and fought heroically at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in July 1863, losing Shaw and some 40 percent of the regiment. The 54th has been immortalized in the 1989 Edward Zwick film Glory, and in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, and Robert Lowell (among others), but Ives’s immediate inspiration was the bronze relief by Augustus St. Gaudens that was unveiled in 1897 on the northeast corner of Boston Common, opposite the State House.
“Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut” also took shape in 1911, Ives melding two earlier pieces, “Country Band” March and Overture and March, “1776.” The setting here is a town not 10 miles from Ives’s birthplace in Danbury; the time period is the Revolutionary War. Putnam’s Camp actually starts out in the Ives present, at a Fourth of July celebration in Redding, where the composer’s affectionate representation of amateur bands affords ample opportunity for what’s been described as “playing games with polymeter, polyrhythm, and polyphrasing.” In the middle section, a child wanders off and has a vision of the Goddess of Liberty pleading with General Isaac Putnam’s soldiers not to leave camp. They do anyway, to fife and drum, but when they see their commander returning from town, they turn back. Vision over, the boy returns to the present-day celebration.
“The Housatonic at Stockbridge” takes us from war to wedlock. Here the title refers to the walk newlyweds Charles Ives and Harmony Twichell took on Sunday morning, July 28, 1908. “We walked in the meadows along the river,” Ives wrote, “and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the riverbed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember.” The hymn tune was Dorrnance, and Ives worked that into the composition, alluding to another of his favorites, Missionary Chant, in the process.
Of course, he worked a lot into Three Places. “St. Gaudens” incorporates the Stephen Foster songs “Old Black Joe” and “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” alongside the Civil War tunes “Marching Through Georgia” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” “Putnam’s Camp” finds room to adumbrate, at a minimum, “British Grenadiers,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Arkansas Traveler,” John Philip Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis,” “Yankee Doodle,” Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Hail! Columbia,” “Columbia Gem of the Ocean,” “Tramp Tramp Tramp,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Keeping track of all that can be a challenge. In “St. Gaudens” I thought I heard the descending thirds from the hymn tune “Azmon” and a suggestion of “Bringing In the Sheaves” (both prominent in Ives’s Second Symphony); in “Putnam’s Camp” I caught a glimpse of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” None of those tunes is traditionally noted as being part of the score, but with Ives, if you heard it, it was there. (And if you didn’t hear it, it was probably still there.) In any case, the thing to remember is that Ives is inclusive. Atonality does not preclude tonality. Multiple everything can coexist. In his version of God’s universe, it’s all happening, and at the same time. It’s a big universe.
Adès offered a big interpretation. “St. Gaudens” began with an unearthly shimmer before settling into a slow, bluesy march with sweet melodies and unsettling piano. There was an sobering irony to the “Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee! / Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free!” melodic line from “Marching Through Georgia,” and also, after the Fort Wagner climax, when the regiment and the music retreat to the “Rally Round the Flag” section of “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” My watch said that, at about eight minutes, this was not a slow interpretation; it never dragged, and yet it felt unusually measured.
“Putnam’s Camp” brought together a riot of amateur marching bands parading in a variety of tempos and time signatures, Adès reminding us just how much Ives can pack into two minutes. Celesta-like piano introduced the dream of the middle section (with flute filling in for fife as the soldiers broke from camp to the tune of “British Grenadiers”); then the piece exploded back into cacophonous fireworks. The Housatonic at Stockbridge was luminous, the hymn tune reverent, the strings ethereal. The hymn tune got repeated and varied before all Creation burst forth in a dissonant, kaleidoscopic praise that evaporated into a final bar and a half of string musing, as if we were no more than God’s dream.
“Putnam’s Camp” elicited mild titters from Sunday’s audience; the whole of Three Places in New England got a respectful rather than an enthusiastic reception. It’s not easy listening — more than a century after he composed this threesome, Ives is still ahead of his time — and certainly not typical summer fare. But I was delighted to hear the work at Tanglewood, and I hope we can hear it more often at Symphony Hall.
Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and his Pastoral Symphony actually premiered at the same Vienna concert, a four-hour affair, on December 22, 1808, that also included the premiere of his Fifth Symphony, the concert aria “Ah! perfido,” his Choral Fantasia, and movements from his Mass in C. The beginning of the Fourth Piano Concerto links up with “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” in that Ives’s piece ends with a hint of church bells and Beethoven’s seems to start with them. Ives’s church would have been Baptist or Congregational; Beethoven’s seems to be Russian Orthodox, to judge by the piano’s opening steady, barless beat, as if it were approximating plainchant.
Bells aside, it’s unconventional, in a piano concerto, for the piano to start things off. The pianist begins the Allegro moderato with quiet, almost shy quavers; the orchestra then gives that theme rhythm and majesty. When the piano returns, it’s overflowing with ideas, and over the next 20 or so minutes the orchestra struggles to keep up. In some performances they have a conversation; in others, it’s an argument. The orchestra starts the 72-measure Andante con moto with a forceful pronouncement; the piano answers with chaste deference. As the two go back and forth, the orchestra softens, its anger subsides; the piano, always una corda, gradually takes control. Yet it’s the orchestra that starts off the rollicking Rondo finale, where piano and orchestra agree that it’s time to have fun.
Now 40, Inon Barnatan was born in Tel Aviv but currently lives in New York City. He’s hardly a household name, but the performance he gave Sunday could have you wondering why. His opening phrase paused, pushed forward, paused again; it presaged an interpretation that would ask questions of time. Adès responded in kind, tender, almost tentative, and the first movement became a gracious exploration of nature’s musical bounty. Barnatan’s tone was bell-like; his phrasing was weighted and cogent and full of thoughtful insinuation. He’d tear into the passagework, and then when the movement’s sonata form came full circle, he’d stop to consider whether time was moving forward or cycling back. His cadenza was improvisational, the movement’s myriad emotions condensed into a few minutes. The movement ran 20 minutes, longer than average, yet it never stopped moving.
Adès in the Andante con moto was angular and gruff rather than loud; Barnatan was very quiet, almost prayerful, and in the end his logic, his humanity, mellowed the orchestra. In the Rondo, Adès gave a lilt to the proceedings, the woodwinds were gratifyingly prominent, and at times the approach seemed to anticipate the hunting parody of Ravel’s G-major piano concerto. The Tanglewood audience responded with a standing ovation — not the rote kind we give a big-name pianist but a spontaneous outburst.
As for the Pastoral, it has more in common with Ives’s Three Pieces than just the outdoor setting. Beethoven was responsible for the symphony’s title, and also for the movement headings: “Erwachen heiter Empfindungen bei der Ankunft dem Lande” (“Awakening of Cheerful Feelings on Arrival in the Country”), “Szene am Bach” (“Scene by the Brook”), “Lustiges Zusammensein in der Landleute” (“Merry Gathering of the Country Folk”), “Gewitter. Sturm” (“Thunderstorm”), and “Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm” (Shepherds’ Song. Joyful and Grateful Feelings after the Storm”). He wrote, “How glad I am to be able to roam in wood and thicket, among the trees and flowers and rocks. No one can love the country as I do. . . . In the country every tree seems to speak to me, saying, ‘Holy! Holy!’ In the woods there is enchantment which expresses all things!” Ives, at least in The Housatonic at Stockbridge, expresses similar sentiments.
A conductor’s Pastoral can be a brisk walk or a leisurely stroll. Beethoven had the former in mind: his metronome markings work out to just under 10 minutes for the Allegro non troppo first movement and just over 11 minutes for the Andante molto moto second. Even conductors looking to give us “authentic” Beethoven rarely hit that mark, and yet the current norm for the symphony isn’t much slower than what Beethoven had in mind. What really counts, of course, is not how long you take on your walk but what you see, hear, and smell along the way.
The symphony’s first phrase is, like the first phrase of the concerto, more of a question than a statement, as if Beethoven were just stepping out of the coach that had brought him to the country from Vienna. Adès ripped into that phrase, and he went on to omit the movement’s exposition repeat, like a man who can’t wait to walk, to explore, to experience. The second subject went at the same breathless pace, and when Adès got to the beginning of the development, where Beethoven riffs on the descending phrase from the movement’s second bar, it was if the composer had hailed a ride. No problem with any of that, but Beethoven’s coda raises the first shadows of doubt — the perception of transience, perhaps — and Adès didn’t go there.
The rest of the symphony was less distinctive. The “Szene am Bach” is where Beethoven really does anguish over the passage of time. Everything ripples and circles as the brook runs along; you can’t stop time but you can try. Adès didn’t — which is to say he rippled (no gainsaying his sinuous body language) but he didn’t circle, and the ageless songs of nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (clarinet) at the end went for naught.
He took the peasant dance at a moderate clip, with rustic French horns and three-note bassoon; the 2/4 trio was more energetic, but perhaps a faster tempo would have helped shape the movement. (Adès did take the repeat here.) The storm didn’t quite let loose, for all that the timpani’s thunderclaps were nicely varied. And though the horns gave a golden solarity to the finale, and the winds chirped up with more birdsong, there was no tinge of sadness to nightfall. Throughout, too, Adès was careful not to let his strings overbalance the winds and brass, but as with François-Xavier Roth’s BSO readings back in March 2017, there was the odd moment where the melodic line got lost. This was a fine reading overall; it just didn’t reach the heights of the concerto.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.