Mix Ives, Dvořák, Rinse And Repeat: New World Arises

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The Housatonic at Stockbridge, Mass., an iconic scene from the world of Charles Ives, whose four symphonies Gustavo Dudamel is conducting this month. (Photo: Richard S. Ginell)

LOS ANGELES – Gustavo Dudamel is known, locally at least, for immersing himself in complete cycles. This winter he has come up with perhaps his most unusual cycle to date – the four symphonies of Charles Ives. No one can recall hearing all of them live in one burst with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and they rarely turn up separately in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Our loss no longer, thanks to ever-curious Gustavo.

However, the focus would not be completely on this cantankerous American maverick. Each Ives symphony would be paired with a standard repertoire symphony by Dvořák: Ives 1 with Dvořák 7 (Feb. 20), Ives 2 with Dvořák 8 (Feb. 23), Ives 3 with Dvořák 9 (Feb. 27), and Ives 4 also with Dvořák 9 (Feb. 28). It would have been better to include the marvelous Dvořák Sixth Symphony instead of repeating the inevitable New World, creating a sequence of 6, 7, 8, and 9. I’m guessing they did this for the sake of the box office.

Dvorák’s most-played symphonies are Nos. 7, 8 and 9.
(Anonymous /Antonin Dvorák Museum, Prague)

In any case, I can see the logic of coupling Ives with Dvořák, however incongruous it may look at first glance. Dvořák famously urged American composers to draw on their  native music to establish a real American classical idiom not so firmly bound to European models. While Dvořák was still alive, Ives was doing just that, but rather than follow Dvořák’s game plan to mine the music of African Americans and Native Americans, this Connecticut Yankee veered in strange, iconoclastic directions that Dvořák couldn’t possibly have had in mind. Nor anyone else at the time.

One has to start somewhere, though, and the Symphony No. 1 is clearly the work of a highly gifted student under the sway of Horatio Parker, Ives’s old-school, Eurocentric professor at Yale. Other than an occasional odd quirk in a melodic line, there is hardly a trace of Ives’s personality in this thoroughly European-sounding four-movement symphony. There is more than a trace of Dvořák: The English horn solo near the top of the slow second movement practically shouts New World Symphony.

Dudamel really seems to believe in the worth of the piece, giving the opening of the movement a graceful shape and whipping up its coda with all of the zest that he would later bring to Dvorák. He amplified the Romantic passion in the central section of the slow movement, made the Scherzo dance, and threw some jauntiness into the only faintly American-sounding passage of the finale.

Charles Ives, an American maverick.

With the Symphony No. 2, the real Charles Ives – or at least the folksy, Americana side of Ives – begins to come into focus. Leonard Bernstein, who gave the world premiere in 1951 a half-century after it was written, once characterized this symphony as having “all the freshness of a naive American wandering in the grand palaces of Europe.” Yet in this century, where cross-genre hopping has become a routine part of any composer’s tool kit, the piece doesn’t sound so naive or wandering.

I hear a confident, even cocky young composer applying undeniable academic skill and a steel-trap mind full of hymns and popular songs to construct a unified American symphony, one that maintains its exuberance even at its most nostalgic. Yes, there are European reminiscences, such as the Bach-like bass line that opens the first movement, or a quote from Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in the third movement. But you come out of the concert hall humming “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Camptown Races,” or maybe the wild bursts of “Reveille.”

Ives’ Second also seemed to bring out the cocky side of Dudamel, who imposed his own expressive mannerisms to the quote of “Where, Oh Where, are the Pea-Green Freshmen?” in the second movement and stirred up the Romantic pot in the third movement with its “America the Beautiful” passages. Dudamel’s finale had all of the terrific rowdy energy that Bernstein put into his three recordings of the piece (not always a given in other interpretations past and present), really letting things rip near the end with all brasses blazing. They were recording the performance that afternoon, as they would be throughout the cycle. I hope this Ives 2 gets a release.

Gustavo Dudamel brought rowdy energy to Ives’ Symphony No. 2. (Sam Comen_LAPA)

So began the Dudamel/LA Phil Ives cycle, which amounts to just the first chapter of the composer’s astonishing development in the first two decades of the 20th century. Yet to come were the atonal experiments, the polyrhythmic tangles, the rowdy collisions of opposing forces playing different things at the same time, the sudden collapses into interstellar stillness. Some of that can be sampled Feb. 28 and 29 in the world-embracing Symphony No. 4, with Ives’ most frequently heard piece, the visionary The Unanswered Question, as an appetizer.

It was harder to make fresh work out of the late Dvořák symphonies, and I had the feeling at times that Dudamel was trying too hard to shake things up. He cranked up the coda of the finale of Symphony No. 7 to ear-splitting levels the night of Feb. 20, and there was no graciousness in his rough, brash treatment of the first movement of Symphony No. 8 on Feb. 23. Yet he could relax and impart some sensitivity and restraint to the second movements of both symphonies. He was especially good at preparing and launching the sudden high-velocity takeoffs in the third and fourth movements of No. 8, with the LA Phil following along like a world-class race car. The New World Symphony awaits Feb. 27-29.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.