Spring for Ives

by Sedgwick Clark

Too bad that we have only one more season of Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music series to anticipate. Programs have been stimulating and the artists notable. Tickets cost only $25 a seat! But our economy hasn’t cooperated: The Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar—whose concert in the initial season was my favorite concert of the year, bar none—couldn’t raise the funds to return this year, so the already-scheduled Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony stepped in to play an extra concert.

In the opening concert (5/6), Music Director Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony enlivened John Adams’s Sibelius-tinged Shaker Loops and did their best to make a case for the 1947 version of Prokofiev’s uninspired Fourth Symphony, based on his ballet The Prodigal Son and filled with weak-tea melodic echoes of Romeo and Juliet. In between, they were joined by the inanely dubbed TIME FOR THREE, string trio in the New York premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s pleasant Concerto 4-3.

Morton Gould’s Symphony No. 3 (1946-47), an all-but-forgotten candidate in the Great American Symphony pantheon, was a highlight of the festival. It hasn’t the stature of the Big Three third symphonies of Roy Harris, William Schuman, and Aaron Copland (and indeed it strongly alludes in its first movement to the Schuman and briefly in its second movement to the Harris), but it is nevertheless a major American symphony and reveals a tough, dramatic side of a composer unjustly dismissed as a symphonettist. The jazzy third movement (“with sardonic humor”), in particular, with its brash percussion writing, is a standout. Gould was well served in a vibrantly committed performance (5/7) by the Albany Symphony and its enterprising music director, David Alan Miller, who have recorded the work for Albany Records. The concert opened with John Harbison’s suite from his opera The Great Gatsby. Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody (1931) followed; it will never rival his Rhapsody in Blue, but pianist Kevin Cole and the Albany players got the most from it. Cole tore through a medley of the best of George and Ira for an encore.

Wednesday’s concert (5/8) featured the Buffalo Philharmonic under its music director, JoAnn Falletta, in Giya Kancheli’s “Morning Prayers” from Life Without Christmas and Reinhold Glière’s Symphony No. 3 (Il’ya Muromets). In the program booklet Falletta opines that “both works share a mystical quality,” and her conducting of the Kancheli was eloquent and moving. Il’ya Muromets (1911) was accurately rendered but lacked the flair necessary to bring such a long-winded tub-thumper to life. The elder generation used to impose heavy cuts: This well-paced reading lasted just over 70 minutes; Stokowski’s recording was 43. Perhaps the forthcoming Buffalo recording on Naxos will have more fire.

I missed the first Detroit/Slatkin concert on 5/9, but this team’s monumental Friday night concert of all four symphonies by Charles Ives featured fine playing by the orchestra and the best conducting I can recall from Leonard Slatkin. Tempos were ideal throughout. The Yale student’s First Symphony moved along sleekly, with its early-Dvořák and Tchaikovsky resemblances seeming more homage than hodge-podge. The popular Second moved along buoyantly, neatly integrating all of the composer’s witty pastiche of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, and American folk and hymn tunes. Only the trumpets’ initial “Reveille” was unaccountably buried before “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” roared to its triumphant conclusion, with Slatkin conducting the final chord with a perfect, sharp attack. (That other Ivesian Leonard followed the score in his 1951 world premiere performance with the New York Philharmonic, but he broadened the chord into an unseemly Bronx cheer in his Columbia and Deutsche Grammophon recordings.) The Third Symphony has always struck me as a crashing bore, but Slatkin kept it moving more than most and all to its benefit.

In a delightful introductory treat to the Fourth Symphony, Slatkin had the orchestra play four bars of the cacophonous Scherzo and then four choirs of the orchestra separately, each playing an instantly recognizable folk tune; then the orchestra played the four bars again together—and nothing was recognizable. I could listen to him deconstruct the second and fourth movements like this all night, bar by bar. The orchestra then proceeded to play the piece spectacularly. What a night—surely the height of the festival!

I was away for the final Spring for Music concert, with Christoph Eschenbach leading Washington’s National Symphony in works by Shchedrin, Schnittke, and Shostakovich, in honor of the orchestra’s past music director, Mstislav Rostropovich.

Steve Smith, ASCAP Honoree

Steve Smith received an ASCAP Concert Music Award on Friday, May17, at the organization’s annual ceremony, held this year at Merkin Hall. Steve has distinguished himself as a classical-music reviewer at the New York Times for nearly seven years and an even longer stint at Time Out New York. In particular, his ardent interest and even-handed reviews in a broad range of contemporary music have won him a loyal readership of both musicians and audiences alike.  Congrats, Steve.

Other ASCAP honorees were conductor/educator Tania León and Jon Deak, composer, educator, and former long-time double bass player for the New York Philharmonic. There was also a centenary tribute to Morton Gould, ASCAP’s former president and noted American composer and conductor.

Classical Oops

The New York Times’s Sunday Review section on May 12 printed an interview with one Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, “a cardiologist and professor at U.C.L.A.’s David Geffen School of Medicine.” Her husband is the chairman of Universal Music Publishing Group, so her home rocks to “many forms of music all the time.” She continues: “I’ve also recently found on YouTube this historic footage of iconic violinists—Heifetz, Horowitz [sic], Oistrakh—playing with the great symphonies of the past century.”

It reminded me of a press release I received several years ago from Philips Records announcing the reissue of “Schubert: The Complete Impromptus conducted [sic] by Alfred Brendal [sic]. . . .”

The Rite at 100

Mark your calendars! On Wednesday, May 29, Q2, the contemporary classical online station of New York’s WQXR, will celebrate the centenary of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with 24 hours of recordings of the work.

Audra on Live from Lincoln Center

Don’t miss Audra McDonald’s brilliant performance on PBS, Friday, May 24, at 9:00 p.m. In the words of the New York Times’s Stephen Holden, “Absolutely thrilling.” I was there, and he was absolutely right.

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