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New England Boiled Dinner

New York
Juilliard Theater
01/23/2004 -  
Charles Ives: Four ragtime dances; Five songs; Three Places in New England; Symphony # 3
Brian Mulligan (baritone)
New Juilliard Ensemble
Joel Sachs (conductor)

“There is a great man living in this country-a composer.
He has solved the problem of how to preserve one’s self
and to learn. He responds to negligence with contempt.
He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.”

Arnold Schoenberg

"Prizes are for boys and I'm all grown up."

Charles Ives, rejecting
the Pulitzer prize

One of the most potentially significant events in the career of Charles Ives occurred without his knowledge. Gustav Mahler discovered the score of the obscure composer’s Symphony # 3 in a music shop in New York and was so intrigued by its combination of harmonic exploration and declarative cohesiveness, as well as its device of evoking, as Mahler himself often did, popular and folk songs to express elemental emotion, that he took it aboard ship with him on his annual return home to Vienna with thoughts of premiering the work in Europe. But Ives’ life was destined to be a crazyquilt of near misses, Mahler dying that same year so that the project came to naught, and Europe had to wait for Nicolas Slonimsky some years later to introduce this most eloquent voice of the new world.

The parallels between Ives and Schoenberg are many. Born in the same year of 1874, each learned music in extra-academic ways, Ives from his bandmaster father and Schoenberg almost exclusively on his own. Although Ives later studied the discipline formally at Yale and Schoenberg taught it famously in Berlin and California, each maintained the healthy skepticism of the outsider throughout his entire artistic life. As a composer, each lived an increasingly isolated existence, Ives in seclusion and early retirement, eventually composing only for his piano bench and his imaginary friend Rollo, Schoenberg authoring an essay entitled “How One Becomes Lonely” and haunting the corridors of music publishers on both sides of the Atlantic with only a modicum of success. Each was an intrepid adventurer, veering off of the comfortable trail onto paths which led to polytonality and splendidly ordered chaos. Each strongly supported the principle that a composer must sing only in his own voice. Like General William Booth, Ives entered into heaven with brass band accompaniment, and gathered at the river just three years after Schoenberg. Now, in 2004, Ives again follows Schoenberg with the fiftieth anniversary year of his death anticipating several interesting festivals.

Joel Sachs has been the driving force behind the study of twentieth century music at Juilliard for some time now. Each year he designs, prepares and leads the Focus Festival, a week long celebration of contemporary music and its immediate roots. For this special year, he has mustered his forces for a good old-fashioned revival of and immersion into the works of the greatest artistic creator in the history of the insurance business (or would that be Wallace Stevens?). My companion and I, both born in Hartford, popped into one of the events this week to cheer on old Charlie Ives (our native son) one more time.

The prospect of hearing some of the most daring music of Ives at the very outset was thrilling indeed as we took our seats in the packed Juilliard Theater. However, this prospect was the only delicious part of the evening as the repast itself was an extremely disappointing and turgid stew of grindingly dull academicism. It seems that many years of immersion in contemporary music has taken its toll on Dr. Sachs: he has forgotten the role of genuine emotion in the art of music making. To perform revolutionary works such as the Four Ragtime Dances, pieces which anticipate the rhythmically off-center world of Bartók by thirty years, with no sense of flair or élan was positively criminal. All that we were offered as an audience was a reasonably accurate deconstruction of the passages themselves; one only knew that these were dances by perusing one’s program. Incidentally, this brochure points out that the students compete keenly for the opportunity to perform in this elite ensemble; hard to believe, since several of them spent the bulk of the evening yawning or exhibiting bored and irritated attitudes and aspects (my companion theorized that they were cultivating these sour faces for future New York Philharmonic auditions).

Even those who tried to be enthusiastic, like baritone Brian Mulligan, were thwarted in their efforts. Of course, these are students and it would not be cricket to criticize their performances too harshly (in fact, the level of accuracy in the 3 Places was far more precise than at Levine’s Munich Philharmonic performance a couple of seasons ago). Mr. Mulligan attempted to get in character, changing his dialect for the cowboy song Charlie Rutlage for example, but never really connected with his mates, whose distracted leader even interrupted the singer mid-phrase to call for a page turner which he had neglected to position before the commencement of the pieces. With no sense of irony, no humor, no spirit, no joy in cacophony, no enthusiasm and, amazingly, no pianist (this was the chamber orchestra version which relies heavily on the keyboard for grounding), the rendering of Three Places in New England was prosaic, to use the most charitable word that I can summon under the circumstances. Like Mahler’s potential Viennese audience, I did not have the occasion to hear the Third Symphony, but it was, in my particular case, strictly a matter of personal choice.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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