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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Concert Review: The Motor City Comet

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra plays four Ives symphonies.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The perihelion of Halley's Comet inspired Charles Ives' Symphony No. 4.
Of all the orchestras scheduled for this year’s Spring For Music festival at Carnegie Hall, none generated more anticipation than the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. These two concerts mark the ensemble’s first return to the historic venue in 17 years, and its first visit under the leadership of its music director Leonard Slatkin.

For Friday night’s concert, Mr. Slatkin assembled a bold program: a complete cycle of the four numbered symphonies of American iconoclast Charles Ives. Ives is revered among American composers. He was a fearless experimenter who combined unique ideas about tonality and rhythm to create sonic slices of everyday life, anchored by military percussion, patriotic songs and spirituals. These four symphonies a  trace a complete musical evolution, spanning just eighteen years.

The program began with the Symphony No. 1, a work that also served as the 20-year-old Ives’ graduation project at Yale. This 50-minute work bears the stamp of 19th century romanticism, although it is constructed with an innovative tonal sensibility. (The first movement goes through eight key changes.) The slow second movement, with its Dvořák-like English horn solo was played with sensuous beauty, with the low string creating orgiastic waves of sound. An elegant waltz and stirring finale followed, a picture of formal construction that would have pleased Brahms.

Although Ives chose a formal, conservative four-movement structure for his First, the Second is the work where he began to find his true voice. He did so through a bewildering set of leitmotivs and quotations, drawn from folk songs and hymns along with direct references to the work of Wagner and Tchaikovsky. This work, with its bold experiments in sonic textures, premiered in 1951 (under the baton of Leonard Bernstein) but was finished 35 years before. It is this composer's best-loved and most played symphony.

This is Ives the gleeful rule-breaker, unafraid to let a fresh musical idea interrupt a still developing theme. He  cheerfully juxtaposes familiar ideas to create new collage-like sounds. For example, the first movement featuresa few bars of the Meistersinger overture, colliding with the dotted rhythms of Beethoven’s Fifth and the cheerful romp of "Turkey in the Straw." The climactic finale included a standing quotation of “Columbia! Gem of the Ocean”, blasted by the trombones over a churning orchestral sea. This was the sound of a mature composer who knew exactly what he was doing. The five movements, climaxing in a brief blast of an atonal eleven-pitch chord, were conducted with gusto by Mr. Slatkin.

The second half of the evening was shorter, brimming with bold musical ideas that continued to challenge the listener. The Third Symphony (titled “The Camp Meeting”) is a profound, deeply spiritual work, evoking the simple gifts of New England church services with a shifting, chromatic tonality that is strange at first but oddly satisfying. The final movement ends with a delicate peal of offstage bells, the sound of a sunny Sunday morning with an innocence that, in the hand of a lesser composer would be mere naïveté.

Before performing the Fourth Symphony, Mr. Slatkin said a few words. He recounted his experience at the work's 1965 premiere (at Carnegie Hall, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the American Symphony Orchestra.) He then offered several musical examples, demonstrating how the unique, chaotic sound of this symphony comes from the huge orchestra playing several of Ives' trademark folk-tunes at the same time.

The Fourth Symphony was inspired by the visit of Halley's Comet in 1910. Ives broke new ground again, creating unearthly textures in the opening movement that were accompanied by an onstage chorus (the UMS Choral Union Chamber Singers) singing a hymn and an offstage group of violins and reeds.  Sections of the huge orchestra do combat in the second movement, a deliberate evocation of chaos caused by two conductors working at once. (Mr. Slatkin was assisted by Teddy Abrams.) The third is a formal fugue for strings and organ, built up and expanded from an idea from an early Ives string quartet.

All this is preparation for the finale, where the sonic boom of the second movement is contrasted with the work's quieter ideas. The chorus returns, singing a radiant, wordless wash of sound, supported by the woodwinds, strings and horns. The finale of the work is a fading offstage percussion ensemble, dwindling at last into silence. As Mr. Slatkin put his arms down, the red hankies whirled and waved from the house. The orchestra responded. The applause was deafening, the sort of noise and chaos that might have shown up on staff paper had Ives written a Fifth Symphony.

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