San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas in New York – Ruggles’s Sun-treader & Ives’s Concord Symphony – Emanuel Ax plays Feldman

Piano and Orchestra
Ives, orchestrated Henry Brant
A Concord Symphony

Emanuel Ax (piano)

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 28 March, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Michael Tilson ThomasAs part of a series entitled “American Mavericks”, the San Francisco Symphony and its adventurous music director Michael Tilson Thomas presented major works by three composers, who each followed their own distinctive path outside the mainstream. MTT and the SFS deserve much credit for unearthing these and other important American compositions. Take for example Carl Ruggles. Born in Massachusetts in the year that celebrated the first centennial of the American Revolution, Ruggles embodies the true Yankee spirit, with his independence, ruggedness and unflinching directness. Fellow composer Henry Cowell described him as “irascible, lovable, honest, sturdy, original, slow-thinking, deeply emotional, self-assured and intelligent.” MTT, commenting after he had conducted Ruggles’s work, added that the composer in his later years (he died in 1971) never backed down from a challenge and would adamantly argue whatever point he sought to make. He was two years younger than Charles Ives, with whom he established a close friendship in later years. After spending his early years at the seashore of Cape Cod, Ruggles went to Boston to study ship design. But his love of the violin, which he studied from childhood, crept up on him and he began to concentrate on music. His work in music education became legendary.

Ruggles’s most representative and outstanding composition is Sun-treader, the title coming from a line in Robert Browning’s poem Pauline: “Sun-treader, life and light be thine forever.” (Percy Shelley is being addressed here.). Ruggles created a dark and extremely expressive piece, contrasting complex polyphonic writing which is acrid and incisive with passages of sober lyricism. The recurring drum beats that open the work suggest a funeral procession for a dead hero. Written over six years beginning in 1926, Sun Treader is a seamless work that is rich in variety. Its contrasts of tension and remission, with free use of dissonant counterpoint, are bathed in masterful orchestration. A truly original work, it bespeaks a fiercely iconoclastic musical persona. MTT underscored the music’s dogged willfulness and ferocity. A few minor glitches notwithstanding, the SFS showed its prowess in executing the technical demands of this daunting work.

Morton Feldman was a very different sort of maverick. He found inspiration in the work of avant-garde artists living in his native New York during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as from his collaboration with John Cage and connections with other progressive American composers, such as Earle Brown. From Cage he learned the importance of the tone and its relationship with other tones. Feldman referred to his works in terms of visual art. His writing takes on graphic dimensions, developed into nuanced notation that enabled him to pinpoint the finest tonal gradations. Silence reigns, the minutest gesture communicating aesthetic qualities to create an ethereal atmosphere.

Emanuel Ax. ©Sony Music EntertainmentPiano and Orchestra dates from 1975 and is one of eight large forms for various instrumental soloists and orchestra. The tempo remains slow throughout the half-hour duration and is extremely sparse in the use of instruments as individual tones, chords or static sounds slowly almost unnoticeably change their colorations. Yet these tones, chords and gestures are carefully placed and related to form a brilliantly conceived entirety. One is forced to listen to every sound attentively; a glowing ethereal quality emerges, occasionally punctuated by pungent brass chords. Emanuel Ax’s considerable technical skills were not required; only his deftness at producing coloristic effects.

Charles Ives labored over his ‘Concord’ Sonata (for piano) between 1904 and 1947, writing most of it between 1916 and 1919 and making various revisions thereafter. He described the work as “an attempt to present [an] impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., over a half century ago … undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.” The music is a free-flowing, sometimes without bar-lines. In the second movement a wooden plank is to be laid upon the keys to produce tone clusters; a solo viola might join in the first movement; and a flute in the finale.

Henry Brant, a Canadian composer who died in 2008, became obsessed with the ‘Concord’ Sonata. His brilliant orchestration is intended to function not merely as a symphonic representation of the work, but also to “present Ives’s astounding music in clear, vivid, and intense sonorities.” MTT and SFS have recorded the work on the orchestra’s label. This concert performance achieved all that the recording promises. The orchestra played this fifty-minute work marvelously: brass resounded with reverberant splendor; woodwinds glowed with sonic brilliance and strings captured the work’s rhapsodic lyricism with radiant vibrancy.

The opening ‘Emerson’ movement has a robust quality barbed with dissonances. References to other composer’s works abound (from Beethoven to Wagner), as well as popular hymns and song tunes. A lovely flute solo makes a moment of relative calm the more endearing. Clear lines highlight Brant’s brilliant use of color. ‘Hawthorne’ follows; a fleeting, sometimes-raucous scherzo that contrasts lumbering brass with free-floating melodies, a highly energetic fantasy. A rough-and-ready marching tune enters toward the close, leading us to a wild carnival scene. On the way, the brass blurts out a snippet from ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean’. ‘The Alcotts’ are the subject of the slow movement, conjuring the peaceful atmosphere of home by the use of hymns and national songs. The concluding ‘Thoreau’, curiously detached, is a reflection of the somber thoughts of this American transcendentalist during his stay at Walden Pond. A pale gray yet restless atmosphere pervades the music, evoking a “pathos of distance” that characterizes Thoreau’s sensibilities, as if never truly comfortable in his retreat. The performance was an unequivocal success.

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