Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Sounds from the Pacific Coast: The Seattle Symphony Performs Charles Ives

The Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot, performing Charles Ives' Symphony No. 4.  (Photo: Brandon Patoc)

When the American composer Charles Ives died in 1954, the Associated Press, in a very short obit, stated that many of his compositions were not performed in his lifetime due to their “difficulty.” AP goes on to say that “critics [have described] his compositions as half-a-century ahead of their time.” For members of the Seattle Symphony under conductor Ludovic Morlot, that half-century is now. The orchestra has just released recordings of Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” “Central Park in the Dark” and Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4. (In 2014 they released a performance of Ives’ Symphony No. 2, also on their own label.)

The Seattle Symphony has made over 150 recordings since the mid-seventies, soaring to wide acclaim under conductor and music director Gerard Schwarz. Schwarz was much like the late Pierre Boulez when he was hired as conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1971. Boulez’s focus on contemporary composers was an important part of the orchestra’s repertoire. It’s been a similar focus for the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot, who signed a six-year contract in 2010  – only Morlot has taken it a step further by performing and recording the works of Charles Ives.

At the center of the orchestra’s new album are two of Ives’ most famous works: “The Unanswered Question” and “Central Park in the Dark,” both believed to be written in 1906 (although the dates are historically unreliable). They are considered companion piece and so, for the sake of continuity, are back-to-back tracks on the CD. As a result, we hear great empathy from the ensemble as they bring out the humanity of the music. “The Unanswered Question” features a repeated five-note phrase from solo trumpet, played here by David Gordon. The strings lift the music to a steady and unobtrusive pulse at the beginning and carry us through what could be described as a period of contemplation, with the trumpet asking the question every so often hoping for an answer. The only response we hear is ambiguous as the flutes flutter like a kind of hesitant chorus. Ives must have found the new century intimidating, because this work more often reflects caution than optimism, perhaps emerging from his sense of the clash of the modern and the nostalgic.

On this recording, “Central Park in the Dark” is the more organic and lighter work, as Ives musically describes a scene of sitting on a park bench in the middle of summer, at night. In 1906 the feel of New York City was always changing. In contrast, Ives’ seems stuck in his own feelings of nostalgia with this work, as if he’s doubtful of the outcome. The climax of the work features the sounds of two bands come crashing together with their songs, I get the feeling that Morlot has held back too much on this important moment in the performance. “Central Park in the Dark” is a delicate composition, but not so fragile that it can’t be shaken up without cracking. Nevertheless, the percussion section rises to the occasion with a crisp snap of the snare drum towards the end. One hundred years since its publication, it still sounds and feels like a work from our time and not some long lost era in history.

Symphony No. 3, also known as “The Camp Meeting,” is the most accessible work in Ives’ repertoire. The three movements are composites of various hymns Ives grew to know and love as a youth. But the music seems to reach a plateau and settles there for the duration. There’s little humour in the work, but there is a lot of wisdom on the staves.

Symphony No. 4, which boldly opens the album, is a work Ives completed, with revisions, in 1926. According to history it was never performed during his lifetime, which means he only “heard” it his mind’s eye. Consequently our relationship with the music is much more experiential. Ninety years ago it was probably difficult to assemble all the musical resources needed to perform it: an orchestra, a choir, several pianos, two conductors, all leading to an uncooperative and challenging composition, but Morlot and the Seattle Symphony make music with this piece, surrendering themselves to the idea that Ives loved commotion and disorder in his works. The composer also wanted the humour to filter out of the chaos and Morlot does exceptionally well to heed those elements and bring them to life.

It’s a difficult work to focus on, but rewarding when you give it your full attention. This is something Frank Zappa stressed when listening to music for the chance to hear something wonderful and spontaneous in the work. He was right and Ives' music, of which Zappa was inspired, rewards the attentive ear with passion, humour and grace: three reasons to add this excellent album to your collection. For more information, visit

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He’s just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in September.

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