CSO’s “Beyond the Score” offers insightful look at Charles Ives

Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 8:14 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Charles Ives and his wife Harmony Twitchell.
Charles Ives and his wife Harmony Twitchell.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s final “Beyond the Score” presentation of the season concentrated on Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 and offered a model of its kind: intelligently planned, scrupulously researched and musically impeccable, showing a deft blend of the theatrical and historical.

Presented Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center, creative director Gerard McBurney fashioned a show (“Things Our Fathers Loved”) with the elderly Ives and his wife reminiscing about his career, the texts drawn largely from the composer’s own writings and letters. Archival recordings of Ives singing and playing the piano provided further interest.

Roger Mueller captured the blustery, at times irascible composer characterfully, though he would have been even more effective had he varied his volume more artfully. With the (fitfully overloud) amplification, there’s no need to shout. Jill Shellabarger was his sympathetic, and, it seems, long-suffering wife Harmony, whose quiet support made effective contrast.

The most rewarding element was the deft transitioning between the multiplicity of influences that found their way into Ives’ Second Symphony and the relevant sections of the work. A fine vocal quartet drawn from the CSO Chorus (Cari Plachy, Rebecca Berger, Nicholas Falco and Bill McMurray) and keyboardist John Goodwin performed snatches of hymns, patriotic songs and piano works, along with portions of Bach and (from the orchestra) Brahms, all of which made their way into the Second Symphony.

As significant and enjoyable as Ives’ symphony is, it’s a bit jarring to realize that virtually every theme in it came from other sources, many of them published and/or copyrighted works. One recalls Stravinsky’s line about Benjamin Britten: “He’s not a composer, he’s a kleptomaniac.”

Conductor Mark Elder, who provided an insightful introduction to Thursday’s performance, left the speaking to the actors and the music on Sunday, providing seamless segues into the orchestra playing. Mike Tutaj’s well-chosen projections added a visual Americana element to the historic background.

After intermission Elder led another vital and rousing account of Ives’ symphony, which was tighter and more cohesive then Thursday night, the quotes and brassy climaxes punched out with huge panache.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “CSO’s “Beyond the Score” offers insightful look at Charles Ives”

  1. Posted May 01, 2014 at 9:52 pm by Joe

    Odd that Stravinsky would call Britten a kleptomaniac. Every theme in Petrushka and rite of Spring was borrowed. If Igor can do it, so can Charlie. It’s a nonissue.

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