As though peeling back layers of pentimento, the visuals and narrative acting in the CSO’s “Beyond the Score: Things Our Fathers Loved” deconstruction of Charles Ives’ life and work transported the audience into New England landscapes and fingers of time reaching as far back as the Civil War. Much as the program pictures superimposed images from an earlier generation on another, we came to know not only Charles Ives but also the work of his father, a bandleader for the Union forces during the Civil War who continued his musical work when he returned from the war to his New England home. We were immersed not only in Ives’ time but in the ingredients of his musical imagination.
While all of the CSO’s “Beyond the Score” concerts-- where one composition is dissected and then performed as a piece after an intermission --help bring the feel of the times in which a composer lived to the fore, this explication of Charles Ives’ Second Symphony has set a new high bar. It is difficult to imagine how someone could attend this program—even seasoned musicians—and not hear Ives’ symphony with new ears. The compilation of New England imagery alone brought this piece to life—and there was much more beyond this visual tour.
We learned how Ives’ father drilled into young Charles the import of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, from each of whom he borrowed, or rather honored, with structures built into this Second Symphony.
Then, with the able acting of this tale (Roger Mueller as Charles Ives and Jill Shellabarger as Harmony Twichell Ives) and with the help of members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus (Cari Plachy, Rebecca Berger, Nicholas Falco and Bill McMurray) we saw how Ives took phrases from songs familiar to New Englanders in the 19th Century to interweave them into the score throughout.
This was a journey through “The American Songbook”. With new ears we learned of the Stephen Foster melodies that Ives massaged into his master symphony— e.g. “Camptown Races” and “Old Black Joe”. “America the Beautiful” rings out at times, as does a triumphal brass finale of “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” and more melodies of 19th Century American songs.
It makes sense that a son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants who would likely be eager for assimilation into what is best in America, Leonard Bernstein, was drawn to this expression of Americana. It was Bernstein who gave Ives’ Second Symphony its first performance in Carnegie Hall in 1951.
That was three years before Charles Ives passed away, leaving later generations the challenge of understanding how his melding of popular American tunes with classical structures was revolutionary in his time.
Every aspect of this program was superlative and kudos also needs to go to Brendan Hubbard for Videography, Alison McBurney for Research, Mike Tutaj for Projection Design, to Todd Land for Program Book Design and of course to conductor Sir Mark Elder. Most of all thanks goes to creative director Gerard McBurney who has brought these Beyond the Score concert programs to life and whose creative energies were clearly at work in this concert as well.
One of the more affordable Chicago Symphony Orchestra series options, the Beyond the Score series rarely disappoints. These concerts follow the formula of taking one piece of music and through narrative, acting and other audiovisual components places it into historical context, elaborates on the biography of the composer, parses its construction or in some other way brings a piece to life in a new way. It is then performed without interruption. This is the A-level course in music appreciation you have always hungered for—whether you are a professional musician or a classical music newbie being dazzled by works for the first time.
Performances are held in Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan Avenue. This was the last “Beyond the Score” program of this season but tickets for the next season’s “Beyond the Score” series are already on sale. For information visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra website or call 312-294-3000.
Concert photos by Todd Rosenberg