Being busy with final exams and grading, I haven’t been to as many concerts as usual over the past few weeks, but I wanted to comment about a few:
May 10 in Carnegie Hall I attended one of their “Spring for Music” concerts, a presentation of the four symphonies of Charles Ives by Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. I’ve been an Ives fan since high school days, when I performed the double bass in a performance of Ives’s Symphony No. 2 by the Oneonta (NY) Symphony Orchestra. Preparing for that experience I acquired the stereo LP of Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the NY Philharmonic as well as a full score published by Peer International. I was shocked – shocked! – to discover that Bernstein made cuts in the piece when he recorded. (Cuts that he retained when he made a new recording with the New York Philharmonic for DG two decades later, I might add.) Who was he to second-guess the composer in that way? (I’ve always been upset to discover when conductors have made cuts in a piece. I once attended a performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony at the NY Philharmonic by a conductor who shall remain nameless where the performance was so heavily cut that I commented to my companion on that occasion that we had just heard a performance of “highlights” from Rach’s 2nd Symphony!)
Anyway, as far as I could tell everything was complete and uncut on May 10, resulting in a very long but gratifying concert. First I should say that, never having heard this orchestra live before, I was extremely impressed, especially in light of the labor problems they’ve had and the slightly smaller string section than might have been ideal for all but the 3rd Symphony (which was intended by Ives for chamber orchestra). On the other hand, they managed a big sound that was not inferior to what I’ve heard from larger ensembles playing in that space. Slatkin has them playing to a very high technical standard, and the orchestra also seemed very engaged with and enthusiastic about the music.
Ives’s 1st Symphony, largely written while he was a Yale undergraduate, owes a heavy debt to Dvorak but still includes touches of harmony and orchestration that foreshadow the mature Ives of the 2nd Symphony to come. I was particularly impressed in this performance by the gorgeous Adagio molto, where the Dvorak influence is at its heaviest but where the composer has made the most structurally and expressly coherent statement in his symphony. The piece could even stand along as a tone poem and earn rave reviews.
The 2nd Symphony is usually a new listener’s way into Ives, as the most listener-friendly “Americana” piece he composed, full of allusions to American patriotic songs and hymn tunes, building to a finale dominated by “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” motifs from which permeate the earlier movements, giving an interesting unity to the work. There are some “romantic” parts where some conductors go “all squishy” and lose the rhythmic profile, but Slatkin did not, providing a performance that rivals the old Bernstein while besting him with completeness (and better playing than the NYP was capable of giving back in the 1960s).
Within the context of the four symphonies, I thought the 3rd came through as the weakest. Possibly Slatkin doesn’t care for it as much as the others, or perhaps it is just the limitations of the piece, being a rather slender thing between the big Nos. 2 & 4. I suspect it didn’t get as much rehearsal time as the others, because this was the only one in which I felt ensemble was a bit slack and some of the key lines in the strings were not as precisely articulated as one could want.
This was the third performance I’d heard this season of the 4th Symphony – previously played by Botstein and the American Symphony and Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic – but I thought it was the best. Slatkin spent some time helping the audience appreciate Ives’s audacity by taking apart some of the challenging 2nd movement and giving us examples of the different lines being combined. The first time I listened to this piece – the old Stokowski/ASO recording back when I was in high school – I could make heads or tails out of that second movement. The key, I eventually learned, was that it is a huge scherzo, a great jest, and one has to just sit back and let it happen, without trying to find any rhyme or reason in it. It is Ives taking laugh at the absurdities of human existence, and heard that way, it is actually quite comical. The third movement is Ives’s bow to traditionalism, taking a fugue he originally wrote for string quartet and tricking it out with a big, luscious string-dominated sound, but just to make sure you get get the joke, insert a quote toward the end from a religious song. The finale is a cosmic mash-up, the music of the spheres, the universal sounds…. Slatkin/Detroit hit the target in every movement and gave the best Ives 4th I’ve ever heard live or on record.
It would be great if Naxos would release a complete Ives Symphonies set by these performers, even though it already has three of the symphonies in its catalogue with others. They have Slatkin remaking his old Rachmaninoff Symphony recordings with Detroit (he already had recorded them as a youngster in St. Louis), but I think there is less need for those recordings than for really good recordings of Ives.
The next evening, May 11, I attended a Musicians from Marlboro Concert presented by Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at the High School of Fashion Industries auditorium. Quite a contrast with Carnegie Hall. The bill of fare was Stravinsky Concertino for String Quartet, Britten String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94, Brahms Piano Quartet, Op. 26. My favorite piece was the Brahms. Indeed, in my humble opinion, Brahms was the greatest composer of chamber music in the 19th century, and perhaps for all time (although one must be cautious about predicting the future). I’ve yet to hear any chamber piece by Brahms that I did not eventually conclude was a great masterpiece. And I though these performers did it justice: Emilie-Anne Gendron (violin), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Gabriel Cabezas (cello), Matan Porat (piano). The Britten I didn’t care for as much, perhaps because I don’t know it very well and did not find it particularly engaging in this performance, despite strenuous efforts by the performers to convince me. But the same performers did a fine job with the Stravinsky, which I greatly enjoyed. The line-up was: Bella Hristova and Adnbi Um (violins, switching off first desk between the two pieces), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), and Angela Park (cello).
Next on my concert calender was a special event, on May 16 – the Juilliard graduation recital by Lachlan Glen & Friends. Mr. Glen was co-organizer of the season-long Schubert lieder series together with Jonathan Ware, and I had so enjoyed attending many of those concerts that I jumped at the opportunity when Lachlan invited me to his graduation recital. He majored in collaborative performance, which means that almost everything on the program involved him performing with other musicians, and it says alot about the esteem in which he is held by his colleagues at Juilliard that he had a stellar bunch of collaborators. The singers included Rachael Wilson, Kyle Bielfield, Matthew Morris and Emmett O’Hanlon. Tavi Ungerleider offered some terrific cello playing (especially a movement from the Rachmaninoff Sonata that was quite moving), and Dimitri Dover collaborated on some 4-hand piano music. Lachlan has grown fantastically as a performer and collaborative artist over the past year, as I witnessed attending the Schubert concerts, starting with good technique and lots of enthusiasm and developing much subtlety of dynamic control and phrasing. He surely has a great career ahead of him. He’ll be joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Program this summer.
My most recent concert experience involved another friend, Alan Pierson, conducting his Irish group, the Crash Ensemble, in a fantastic evening at Zankel Hall (Carnegie Hall small ensemble venue) on May 17. Crash Ensemble was actually started by its Musical Director, Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, in 1997, and Alan Pierson became its conductor several seasons ago. (He’s best known as artistic director of the contemporary ensemble Alarm Will Sound and as the musical director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.) This concert was a logical development of the recent Nonesuch recording by Pierson and Crash, collaborating with Dawn Upshaw and Iarla O Lionaird (Irish folk vocalist) on recent compositions by Dennehy, “That the Night Come” (Upshaw) and “Gra agus Bas” (O Lionaird). Fine as that recording is, hearing the pieces performed live was a special treat and gave them additional meaning for me. They began the program with two exciting songs by Osvaldo Golijov, “Lua Descolorida” and “How Slow the Wind.” I have Upshaw’s recording of “Lua Descolorida,” where it has a piano accompaniment. In this performance, the piece was accompanied by string quartet. Golijov has also used it, with a different orchestration, in his San Marco Passion. The lovely piece is lovely in any format, but I think Upshaw’s performance with the string accompaniment was more effective than the recording with piano accompaniment.
So, that’s my concert calendar for May concluded. The NY Philharmonic was away on tour, but I’ll be hearing them a few times in June and looking forward to their Summertime Classics in July.