February 25, 2020
There was a time when it was hip to love Charles Ives.
As with so many things, it was Leonard Bernstein who really got the ball rolling, first by conducting the world premiere of the cantankerous, iconoclastic American composer/insurance tycoon’s Symphony No. 2 in 1951, and then ramping it up on TV with his Young People’s Concert, “Charles Ives: American Pioneer” in February 1967. That’s how many people got their first exposure to Ives, including myself, and the crescendo of interest built through the Ives centennial year (1974) and the American bicentennial two years later. Ives was an unsung rebel in his time, experimenting with atonality, polyrhythms, note clusters, and quarter-tones decades before they became accepted, and that appealed to the antiestablishment spirit of the ’60s.
Indeed, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was right on top of the Ives boom then. The Symphonies Nos. 1, 3, and 4 received their first LA Phil performances in 1970–1971, and their hot young music director Zubin Mehta recorded the Symphonies 1 and 2. Yet since Mehta and, after him, Ives champion Michael Tilson Thomas, left town, performances of Ives have slackened off, as if he was being relegated back to the periphery of the repertoire as a passing fad. Only The Unanswered Question, the first piece of symphonic music heard at the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003, seemed to have stuck.
Enter Gustavo Dudamel. He loves to do complete symphony cycles, and after he dealt with those of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, and most massively, Mahler, he came around to surveying the four symphonies of Ives this month with the LA Phil in Disney Hall. It’s not the most extensive of his cycles, but it may be the most welcome. Apparently, it’s the first time anyone has done all four symphonies in a single concentrated period here. Also, each symphony is paired with a counterpart by Dvořák, who visited America around the time Ives was getting started.
And there is a storyline to follow. The young Connecticut Yankee is finishing up his studies at Yale, still in thrall of European-trained faculty but equipped with a mischievous, inquiring mind. He decides that it’s better to pursue his living in the insurance business while composing on evenings and weekends in isolation, figuring that since no one wants to hear his crazy music, he can write as he pleases. Eventually he finds himself by drawing upon childhood memories of hymns, popular and patriotic songs, and the tone-clashing experiments of his revered bandmaster father, George Ives.
First things first, on Feb. 20, Dudamel started out with Ives’s Symphony No. 1, a very accomplished, often pretty, yet resolutely traditional, four-movement European symphony that bears not a trace, it seems, of the future Ives personality aside from an occasional strange twist in the melodic line. Gustavo seemed to believe in the rightness and value of every note, amplifying the passions of the Romantic-inspired passages where he could and whipping up the codas into a frenzy, as if to match those in his performances of the Dvořák Symphony No. 7, which followed after intermission. If anything, it’s possible that the finale of the Dvořák Seventh was whipped up too much, sending the volume into the red zone.
The first signs of Ives the iconoclast would surface in the Symphony No. 2 the afternoon of Feb. 23. Still a young composer in his 20s, Ives continued to conceive of a symphony on European terms. But this time, most of the ingredients were thoroughly American, with “Turkey in The Straw,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Where, Oh Where, Are the Pea-Green Freshmen?” and ultimately “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” among others, being the threads with which Ives weaves his symphonic tapestry. It was something for Dudamel to raise a ruckus with, which he certainly did in the finale — with all flags flying at the end, the brass blasting in all-out madness — and he could find graciousness in the “Pea-Green Freshmen” passages in the second movement and unity in the whole five-movement structure. Like Bernstein before him, Dudamel held out the finale’s last freaky, dissonant blap of a chord beyond the duration indicated in the score, which works great as an all-American razzberry to the whole European tradition. A mostly terrific performance.
Perhaps with Ives still on the brain, Dudamel overdid the rowdiness in the first movement of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 after intermission — it sounded loud, brash, graceless. Yet he was able to relax in the pastoral scene of the second movement and he was especially good at shifting gears suddenly, when the abrupt tempo changes in the third and fourth movements struck.
There will be time for more Ivesian fun, clamor, and spiritual uplift when Dudamel tackles the radical Symphony No. 4 Feb. 28–29, preceded by the more contemplative Symphony No. 3 on Feb. 27, with The Unanswered Question and Dvořák’s overplayed “New World” Symphony on all three dates. More on those concerts to come.