Traveling to bucolic landscapes and enjoying the wealth of music in more relaxed music festivals provides one of the main joys of New England summertime. This year we cannot visit this barn in the Vermont woods (or many other sites), but they are nevertheless finding ways to transmit some measure of that joy to us.
Gilbert Kalish began yesterday’s Yellow Barn stream by speaking about Charles Ives and his mighty sonata on local thinkers. In some dozen minutes Kalish made a case for Ives as the first American classical composer, one knowledgeable of European classical music traditions but steeped in American music, with the music of his father’s band encoded in his compositional DNA. At the same time, Ives wrote about his understandings of the Transcendentalists who populate this sonata. Kalish tied Ives to this year’s celebrated composer, Beethoven, noting that the opening four notes of that now-ubiquitous symphony recur some 40 times in Ives’ sonata. (He invites us not to listen for it and says as a performer he finds that it distracts from the music at hand to stumble across another citation of Beethoven while in Concord.) Visually, Beethoven looms as a presence, with enlarged autograph pages of his String Quartet Op. 132 on the walls at the back of the stage.
Then to the music. Kalish humbly said he was going to try to play Ives’s Concord Sonata. And play he did. Dating from circa 1911 – 1915, Ives’ “Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord, Mass., 1840-60’” is a monument in four movements. The first, “I. Emerson,” begins meditatively, calmly and quietly. While the tempo remains ruminative, the music becomes increasingly complex (if not, indeed, thorny). There is a tolling, bell-like quality which Kalish perfectly captured; perhaps Ives bethought himself momentarily of Amherst, Mass. and Emily Dickinson at the end of this movement? The second movement, “II. Hawthorne,” opens more chipper and melodic; we move from essays to longer prose narrative. I am astounded at the carefulness and variety of touch Kalish extracted using the wooden block for the black-key tone clusters. In this movement the American songs and hymns Kalish alluded to earlier come to the fore, as citations, as inspiration, as irruptions into the musical text (earworms of centuries gone by, perhaps)—notably dances that sound almost-familiar. These musical stories whirl frenetically into a dance of excitement, then a breather, and it commences to build up again. “III. The Alcotts” opens with bell-like pedal tones; church bells seem a structurally uniting refrain throughout. (I am not sure Bruce Hornsby had that quite in mind in his 1986 citation of this movement’s opening.) The Alcotts try on a waltz, later a jig, before returning to a quiet conclusion. The concluding movement, “IV. Thoreau,” tackles everybody’s favorite Transcendentalist, in a deliberate way, full of quiet introspection. Here the optional flute part appears, at first as though a febrile manifestation then gaining strength in its off-stage presentation. The sonata finds its conclusion in quiescence and stillness. Screen fades to black.
Harmonically this sonata is fresh and varied, ranging from the familiarity of common practice to Ives’s own new explorations, often in many different directions over the length of this work. Uniting these movements is a shared sense of the Promethean task of creation, its rewards and its struggles, and here expressed in the context of a young nation striving to find its own artistic path forward, in Concord and in Connecticut.
Following a ten-minute intermission, the concert resumed with the world première of Stephen Coxe’s “Entstehung Heiliger Dankgesang (Emergence of a Holy Song of Thanksgiving)” (2020). Composed for string quartet and percussion, this work is a response and a prelude to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet, which follows it on this program. Alice Ivy-Pemberton and Emma Frucht, violins; Roger Tapping, viola; Coleman Itzkoff, cello; and Eduardo Leandro, percussion brought Coxe’s music to life. Here is Coxe on his work:
The current work consists of 45 pages of realizations, reworkings, responses, guidelines for interpretation, and examples from Beethoven’s autograph score, all of which may be excerpted and arranged in any fashion for a given performance. A performance of the entire set would take well over an hour: this evening’s performance explores a considerably shorter ‘excerpted’ version among many possible versions, as it is conceived to directly precede a performance of the Op.132 slow movement.
This aleatoric work encompasses four types of response: canons, realizations, guidelines, and “roads not taken” but discernible in manuscript pages. You can read Coxe’s full note HERE. Here beginning with bowed percussion and the clarion quality of such sounds, the music intones its introit. The string players pursue thoughts and themes; the percussionist stands in for the scribbling composer. Again, music attempts to capture the act of creation at work and at play. The whole has an ethereal quality to it which underscores and reinforces the improvisatory nature of the composition and is so perfectly captured in this performance.
The same string players (now minus percussionist, who quietly left the stage) presented “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart,” the slow third movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 (1825). Opening quietly and drawing on the tradition of hymns, which it enriches and ennobles, this music builds in intensity and passion as it reifies and affirms its own act of artistic creation. Between moments of hymn and canon with the religious intensity we associate with the pinnacle of those forms, and reinforced by invoking the piety so often heard in the harmonic Lydian modality here used, there come moments of lighthearted charm that recall trios of Haydn quartets. Tripartite structure predominates yet the signification shifts as the music reprises, reflecting thematic growth as thanks profuse. Sacred and secular, this music twirls around twin and often disparate poles of daily life; we hear Beethoven grappling to express his own testament. The movement ends with the diminishing waves of harmonious sound, never disappearing only growing fainter as they ripple outwards into the universe.
With two cameras and an unknown number of microphones (greater than four that I saw over the course of the broadcast), Yellow Barn has invested in bringing us an enriching experience of the music on their campus. Gone is the intimacy, of course, and there are some glitches — some audio pops, but clear video. (I watched on a newer tablet.) Early in the Ives, the audio briefly took on the quality of a music box. I file this under the Law of Unintended Consequences. Ives would, I think, have loved it. This is one positive addition to the experience that comes from these newer modalities of delivery. For the second half, the musicians spread out, standing throughout the barn for Coxe’s work, reading from notes and sketches on the walls and somehow incorporating themselves into the décor along with the reproduction of Beethoven’s manuscript pages for the op. 132 quartet. For the Beethoven the quartet of strings took to a more canonical seated arrangement yet at greater than normal distance one from the other.
The initial live presentation on Friday night had to be postponed until Saturday afternoon due to connectivity issues in southern Vermont. Still, this performance rewarded our wait — and I hope it will remain available for some time. Find a spot in your garden, equip yourself with a cool beverage of choice, tune in HERE, and if your luck prevails, perhaps some garden birds will opine on the musical birdsong in this fabulous opening Yellow Barn concert, to complete the idyll we crave.
Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra