One hundred-fifty years after his birth, Charles Ives (1874-1954) continues to elude audiences and players alike. Dense with quotations and references amidst the mires of polytonality, musical collage, and in some cases microtonality, his musical ethos demands that practitioners dig deep to understand what drives the music, not merely to learn the mechanics it takes to play it. Quotations are not simple devices, as Ives implements them to comment on the source tune alongside his own music, for example. This deeper understanding required is why many performances of Ives don’t always land well. To understand the decisions and context of Ives is to learn the music.
[nec]shivaree, under the guidance of artistic director Stephen Drury (who is well-known for his deep knowledge of Ives and frequent performances of the insanely difficult Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Massachusetts 1840-1860”), achieved that high watermark on Monday at New England Conservatory Williams Hall. As part of the celebrations of Ives’s 150th birthday this year, and hot on the heels of Drury and company’s concerts of the complete Ives sonatas for piano, all four of the complete sonatas for violin and piano, along with the extant “Decoration Day” from the unfinished Violin Sonata No. 5 “New England Holidays” (which now we know as A Symphony: New England Holidays), were performed and came across with deep reverence for the core of what makes Ives unique.
Violin Sonata No. 2 started the evening, with violinist Sophia Szokolay and Drury on piano (the only Drury appearance of the evening). This sonata focuses on representing different images of New England at the turn of the century, a late autumnal afternoon, a barn dance with a fiddle player, and a revivalist. That divide requires the violinist and pianist to change their interpretation on a whim, going from warm, more traditional style to bright fiddle playing and back again. Szokolay not only intuited these changes well, but she completely acted out the parts as well, engaging the audience and inviting them into each scene. She relished the fiddle tunes of the second movement, letting herself have genuine fun as she danced around stage. Drury, in dialogue with Szokolay, demonstrated his decades of Ives knowledge through freely manipulating the tempo of each movement (Ives famously stated at one point “Unless you’re playing a march, for the love of God, don’t stay in the same tempo for too long!,” a statement Drury fully embraced) and on occasion mouthing some of the text of quoted tunes, notably in “The Battle Cry of Freedom!” quotations.
Sonata No. 3 followed with Hila Dahari on violin and The Charles Ives Society President, Longy faculty member, and long-time new music lover Donald Berman on piano. Dahari kept herself more restrained, playing with a slightly thinner and more delicate tone rather than digging into the strings frequently. This aesthetic choice proved most welcome, as the hymns quoted required a far gentler touch than the more raucous and bellicose folk tunes of the second sonata. Guided expertly by Berman, who in turn also restrained himself especially in the first movement, the collage of quoted and altered hymns flowed effectively from one to another as Ives patchworked several of them into one large “super hymn” of the first movement, laying out verses and a constant refrain the audience could latch onto; it also helps that Ives, in an attempt to make the sonata more palatable for audiences, toned down on some of the more intense dissonances we all know him for, creating a calmer, more reflective work. None of this is to say that the work and performance sounded relaxed and fully calm; in the second movement Berman relished the complicated piano part, a dense rag fragmenting several quotes of “There’ll Be No Dark Valley” that somehow still presented the tunes clearly, especially as Dahari brought them out in augmentation over some of the more chaotic passages. The third movement was the most Ivesian, with collage layering of dense rhythms to create a personal and haunting fragmentation and cumulation of Need. Dahari and Berman keenly communicated form, as each joyously brought out the hymn in its final cumulation.
Berman returned after intermission with and violinist Jordan Hadrill for violin Sonata No. 1. Hadrill leaned into the bite and intensity of the violin part throughout, as she expressed the diversity of styles in the first movement especially. Like Szokolay, Hardill dug in weightily and throatily croaking out “The Old Oaken Bucket” and “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” while Berman skillfully accompanied. Out of all the sonatas, this one made the most extensive use of the violin, frequently adding in double stops and pizzicatos where many of the others exploited the expressive possibilities with less elan. Though Hadrill appeared to be working hard, her interpretation came across as effortless. Easily the best moment of the sonata came in the statement of “Watchman!” in the third movement. Berman gave his part with appropriate weight while Hadrill crooned the melody, a (much better) alteration of a hymn that could later come to be its own art song in Ives famous 114 Songs and the thesis of his immortal Symphony No. 4.
Ives Society member Daniel Stepner took over violin duties, with pianist Benjamin Rossen [whose opera The Unknowable debuts this weekend HERE] for the last two selections of the evening, Sonata No. 4 “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting” and the lone movement from Sonata No. 5 “New England Holidays.” Stepner recorded all the violin sonatas in the past, which means that, in this reviewer’s opinion, there would be no one more qualified to finish the evening, especially with the sonatas that require the most thorough understanding of Ives and programmatic music. Sonata No. 4 tells of different moments during the Children’s Day at New England Revivalist Camp Meetings, allowing children to roam around, learn about Protestant Christianity, play games, and sing songs to their hearts’ content. Stepner leaned into the playful and cheeky qualities of the music, letting himself become the patter of boys’ footsteps marching around and the somewhat messy but joyful singing of hymns like “Yes, Jesus Loves Me!” and “Shall We Gather at the River?” Rossen unabashedly emphasized the wide-reaching harmonies, especially in the second movement as he played the character of nature, the forest, and the stream where the boys skipped some stones; that willingness to become a character rather than merely play exponentially helped in the “Allegro con slugarocko” passage, where Rossen pounded the keys without letting himself become a clattering noise. In the hands of players who knew what and how, Sonata No. 4 easily conveyed the most joy and personality of the bunch.
Despite the effective advocacy of Stepner and Rossen, the extant movement of Sonata No. 5, shows why Ives abandoned the concept in favor of the orchestral version we have come to know and love. The piano and violin by themselves, lack the character and depth of color that the orchestra bestowed upon the material, though moments did shine brightly. Rossen roiled the low register of the piano to create the murmuring of the crowd dressing the graves of the fallen, imitating what would become an incomprehensible rumble from the ether in the orchestra, and Stepner admirably echoed “Taps” across the hall with the violin (still needs that trumpet to sell it!). Although a shadow of the movement that would later cause Stravinsky to stop composing until he reduced the entire piece to piano and figured out every aspect of how it was composed, the movement did at least nicely round out the evening, representing everything but the elusive “Pre-Sonata” Ives cast out of his catalogue.
Each sonata brought forth a different problem and character with which each duet partner could engage, and thus the audience got a breadth of style and personality so rare in this rep. We need to keep this up. Ives would smile; Rollo would frown; that’s the best way this reviewer can imagine things.
More Ives is coming at NEC: Piano music on Feb. 27th and March 27th at 7:30 p.m. in Jordan Hall.