CBSO/Spano – 12 March

Chamber Symphony *
Organ Symphony
Symphony No.2

A selection of American Hymns and Songs **

Thomas Trotter (organ)

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
David Lawrence **

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group *
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 March, 2003
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

When is a symphony not quite a symphony? When it’s an American symphony. Such might be the answer on the basis of this concert – the third instalment in the CBSO’s survey of Charles Ives’s numbered symphonies.

Admittedly John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992) is chamber music writ large after the manner of Schoenberg’s trail-blazing opus. Symphony Hall clarifies but doesn’t project the thorny counterpoint of this most recalcitrant of Adams’s significant pieces, though Robert Spano found the right degree of deadpan humour in the Mongrel Airs and gave Aria with Walking Bass a fetching insouciance. The vortex of manic activity into which Roadrunner finally plunged was superbly articulated by the BCMG with a sense of impending catastrophe the more entertaining for being audience-shared. Ten years after the premiere, Chamber Symphony remains easily the most durable of its composer’s major works.

The facts that Adams’s Chamber Symphony is a complement – musically and aesthetically – to Copland’s Short Symphony (1932), also known as his Second Symphony, and that the latter’s First Symphony is a reworking – for orchestra alone – of his Organ Symphony (1924) helps tie up connections between the works in the first half of this concert rather neatly. Poised between nascent European neo-classicism and early American jazz, the Organ Symphony comes from the time when Copland was more intent on provoking his audience than entertaining it.

After the Prelude had emerged suitably chaste, the Scherzo was a shade too fast for its biting syncopation to fully register (though the calm central section was magically delivered), while the Finale built inexorably – its complex metres overlaid in a frenzied drive to the close. Thomas Trotter brought delicacy as well as panache to the concertante organ part written for Nadia Boulanger, and Spano brought out many imaginative orchestral touches.

The most evident feature of Ives’s Second Symphony (1897-1902) is its uninhibited deployment of American hymns and songs as thematic raw material from which to construct an overtly ’American Symphony’; the chance to hear a brief selection of these items proved welcome. David Lawrence led the CBSO Chorus in spirited renderings of David T. Shaw’s Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, Henry Clay Work’s Wake Nicodemus (how the young Ives must have relished its switchback rhythms!) and Stephen Foster’s De Camptown Races, with George A. Miner’s Bringing in the Sheaves providing some lilting restraint. Trotter was on hand to provide a tasteful ’organ loft’ accompaniment.

There’s a timeless nostalgia to this music, which Ives is at pains to enshrine in his symphony. Usually described as a five-movement work, it’s more useful to see hear it as being in three movements – an Adagio framed by two Allegros, each with substantial (and interrelated) slow introductions. Spano brought out the sonorous, processional quality of the initial Andante, its largely string based scoring teasingly offset when woodwinds launch into the main Allegro movement. Here and in the Finale, balance is at a premium: specifically, how to articulate the very full and often sub-divided strings, while giving woodwind and brass room to assert themselves.

Not all the textural niceties came off on this occasion (the close of that first Allegro is almost impossible to negotiate), but Spano’s approach lacked nothing in energy or eloquence. Taken at a flowing but never rushed pace, the central Adagio was powerfully shaped, while the Brahmsian ’take-off’ that launches the Finale was judged to a nicety. The section principals generally shone in a work which keeps them occupied (would anyone have argued had Ives designated this a ’Concerto for Orchestra’?), with the orchestra as a whole firmly in control of the climactic montage of themes – with its ’below the belt’ final dissonance.

Had Ives ’abandoned’ himself wholly to insurance after this work, he would still have given us one near-masterpiece, with its qualities of recklessness and sincerity that were communicated readily in this performance.

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