Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Fourth Symphony


THAT'S A DOZEN DOUBLE-BASSES in that blurry photo (taken without flash), a dozen cellos, fourteen violas, thirty-six violins, fifty-four winds. I forgot to count the percussionists and keyboarders, and of course the photo doesn't show the extra instruments up balcony left, or the chorus behind us.

To me Fourth Symphony will always mean Ives, and I try not to miss a performance. I first heard it in December 1967, when the Oakland Symphony played it under Gerhard Samuel, whose programming in those days was remarkable — the standard repertory plus Ives, Stockhausen, Harrison, Terry Riley: a string of several years of enterprise which has never been given its due. (This performance of the Fourth Symphony, surely the west coast premiere, is undocumented on the Internet, as far as I've been able to determine.)

Whereas once the Fourth had been an impossible vision, unperformed until 1965 partly for its complexity and instrumental demands, it has now become more commonly heard. I've heard the San Francisco Symphony played it under Seiji Ozawa and its present music director Michael Tilson Thomas. There have been a number of recordings, amply described by Scott Mortensen here.

There are four movements, composed between 1910 and 1916 (but Ives dates are almost always very slippery), each of so idiosyncratic a character as to require rather different performing forces and, more important, different psychological approaches. The Prelude states the speculative, one can't avoid the word "spiritual" nature of the program, with a group of violins, a viola and a harp in the distance, and a chorus singing, in unison until the close, the old hymn Watchman ("tell us of the night...").

In 41 measures (for most of the orchestra: the "distant choir" travels at another pace) and about three minutes the Prelude runs through an almost ungraspable number of details which all weave together into an ultimately calming resolution. The genius of Charles Ives is his persuasive ability to display and demonstrate the power of music to contain at a given instant and in a given sonic event an enormous number of possible interrelationships and consequent meanings: this Prelude is a locus classicus .

The three remaining movements investigate various ways of responding to the speculative Prelude: a sprawling "Comedy" (this scherzo is not a joke), Allegretto, alternating among raucous brass-band marches, sentimental parlor-songs, hymn-tunes, and machine sounds; a stately Fugue again based on hymns, and the slow Finale, Largo, which returns to the idea of spatially separated instrumental forces, the addition of the chorus, and a quiet, speculative, appreciative mood.

Where the Prelude is less than four minutes long, the other three movements run about twelve, eight, and eight minutes. Recordings and performances vary, but the entire piece won't take more than thirty-five minutes: Ives is efficient, laconic, in his discursiveness.

Sunday's performance was by the combined orchestras of the University of California, Davis, and the University of the Pacific, whose conductor, Nicolas Waldvogel, presided over the affair, with assistants conducting the various outlying ensembles. The orchestra was a little too large for the Mondavi Center's Jackson Hall, but the acoustics were forgiving, and the music was revealed with considerable clarity.

Ives's music is always significant. Passages in the Fourth refer to the sinking of the Titanic, Pilgrim's Progress, Nathaniel Hawthorne, camp-meetings and church services, marching bands and public holidays, barroom and salon music, and other, earlier pieces of Ives's: the First Quartet, the Concord Sonata, and The Unanswered Question, among others.

More necessarily than most composers, and more successfully, Ives worked at the difference between public and private music. A symphony is public: which means, among other things, that it is not necessarily coherent, or resolved, or unified. Ives has his musicians playing at different speeds, in different places, some quietly, others drowning them out; some reflective or thoughtful, others assertive or brash.

A glance at the AMP version of the score, the only one yet published, suggests the confusion this complexity can produce. Only the second movement was set in type; the others are notated in hand, and in three different hands. Even the second movement, based on the New Music Edition (San Francisco) of 1929, is amended and annotated in handwriting. The instrumentation is uncertain: horn or trombone, piano if trumpet is unavailable, and so on.

Politics is the art of what is publicly possible, and the Fourth Symphony is politics, hence appropriate to the season. Ives himself was intensely involved with politics; he was later, after having composed the Fourth, to correspond with presidents, and to propose amending the Constitution to permit direct popular input to each year's Congressional agenda.

Listening to a public performance of the Fourth bears this out: one's attention moves from those string-players in the balcony to the unseen chorus behind to the enormous orchestra, and among the orchestra from the formidable double-basses to the many busy keyboard players (solo piano, piano four hands, celeste, organ, quarter-tone piano). Waldvogel conducted with long-armed sweeping gestures, maintaining the steady underlying pulse but allowing individual phrases their own version of line. The musicians concentrated intensely and performed stalwartly.

And then it was over. The concert had begun with what might be called the pocket-version of the Fourth, The Unanswered Question: a big string orchestra (from UOP) playing almost soundlessly, a lone trumpet in the upper right balcony plaintively repeating a single phrase over and over, four flutes in the upper left retorting with increasingly irritable flurries. Nick Antipa was the trumpeter; all played well.

Dan Flanagan was the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with D. Kern Holoman leading the UC Davis orchestra: not finally a fully polished professional performance, perhaps, but a touching and fascinating one, with fine detail and drive. (Flanagan walked on in one movement of the Fourth for a cameo, to great effect).

The Fourth came last, as it should, and was over in what seemed a minute. So much to hear, so much to think about, so much to be grateful for, so little time to enjoy it. I asked one of the violinists afterward, seeing him mixing with the audience in the lobby, how many rehearsals there'd been: Oh, sixteen, I think, he replied. Well, it was a beautiful performance, I said; it's amazing that you did it at all, but that it was so beautiful...

Yes, he said, there were some misgivings among the orchestra about doing it, we never did really hear it all...

Impossible to "hear it all." That's the point. It's a major major piece; recordings are poor black-and-white still photos of it; even a live performance, while in color and motion, loses the impact of the Fourth in its transitoriness. Ives tries repeatedly to do the impossible, to mediate Quest and Arrival. His effort is ultimately both comic and tragic and always, always, human.

Northern California history, performances of Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony:

1967, Dec. 6,7,8; Gerhard Samuel, Oakland Symphony Orchestra
1968, Feb. 14, 15, 166: Seiji Ozawa, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
1973, May 9,10,11: Seiji Ozawa, SFSym (subsequently on tour in Brussels, Florence, St. Petersburg, Vilnius, and Moscow)
1991, November 20,21,22,23: Michael Tilson Thomas, SF Sym
1999, Sept. 30, Oct. 1 (third movement only): Michael Tilson Thomas, SF Sym (recorded live for cd)
2000, June 9: MTT, SFSym (toured in September to Baden-Baden, Lucerne, Cologne, Dusseldorf)
2002, Jan. 31, Feb. 1,2,3: MTT, SFSym (toured in February to New York and Ann Arbor)

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