I’ve had the privilege of hearing two live performances of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata in my life—one thirty years ago, and one last Friday night at the Nasher Sculpture Center as part of the Soundings Series. I hope I don’t have to wait another thirty years to hear a live performance of the piece again, but if I do, it will be worth hanging on for.
At the premiere of the Concord Sonata in 1938 (twenty-four years after its completion), critic Lawrence Gilman declared the epic fifty-minute work “the greatest music composed by an American,” an audacious declaration that many, including myself, still agree with.
Friday night’s performance by Gilbert Kalish, currently the leading exponent of the work, justified Gilman’s evaluation. Playing from the score—a near necessity, given the complexity and sheer magnitude of the piece—Kalish allowed the audience to join him not so much in merely hearing, but in experiencing a sonata on many levels. The Golden Age of American literature—clearly evoked in the movements titled “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts,” and “Thoreau”—provides a starting point for a work that ultimately, and with great striving, embodies both the American yearning for a higher plane of consciousness and, by implication, a universal desire to transcend our current level of existence. Kalish waded into this hurricane of notes and ideas with sturdy virtuosity and thoughtfulness.
The presentation was further enhanced by inclusion of the short but vastly meaningful flute solo (designated as optional by the composer) near the end, performed by Connor Nelson. The clear, simple flute melody rising out of the turbulence of the piano part multiplies the overall effect beautifully.
* * *
The concert had opened with an appearance by Tin Hat, an ensemble fusing the aesthetics of jazz improvisation and the classical tradition. The four members of the group covered, at various points, piano, accordion, voice, violin, various clarinets, and guitar.
Their substantial performance drew on their recording the rain is a handsome animal, a cycle of vocal settings of and instrumental pieces inspired by the poetry of E.E. Cummings. Part of the miracle of Cummings’ poetry is in his ability to be succinct and expansive at the same time; these musicians pick up on that concept and turn this verbal concept into a music.
One particularly effective moment arrived at the end of the vocal setting of “so shy shy shy.” Here, the musicians grabbed the word “die” to introduce the Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) motif from the traditional Catholic mass for the dead, and proceeded to develop it almost in the manner of a classical sonata. Another striking effect arrived when the group inserted, in the midst of their jazzy ruminations of Cummings, their take on Ives’ song “Serenity.” This pleasingly weird setting of American romantic poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s echt-Victorian devotional text, which in this context took on an entirely new level of meaning, simultaneously challenges the pre-conceived notions of the twenty-first –century listener while providing a wonderful prelude to the Concord Sonata.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, the Dallas Symphony and guest conductor Ton Koopman remained firmly in the eighteenth century for a series of subscription concerts on Thursday through Sunday at the Meyerson Symphony Center. Though we’ve frequently criticized the Dallas Symphony’s neglect of living composers in recent and upcoming seasons, this exploration of very famous (Joseph Haydn and J.S. Bach), somewhat famous (C.P.E. Bach) and hardly remembered (Pietro Locatelli) composers of the past was unfailingly energetic and engaging. Koopman managed to transform a reduced orchestra of about thirty thoroughly modern musicians into a convincing baroque ensemble for the items by Bach, Bach, and Locatelli, and then re-invented them equally convincingly into a lean classical-era orchestra for the Haydn.