This week’s series of subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) has only three scheduled performances in Davies Symphony Hall, the first of which was given last night. The program turned out to be one of the more peculiar exercises in juxtaposition, devoting the first half to Charles Ives and the second to music selected for the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I suppose one could make the case the both Ives and Kubrick were renegades, each in his own way. One could also argue that, like Ives, Kubrick had a keen ear for appropriation, eventually using appropriated material, rather than an original score, for 2001. However, neither of these paths of reasoning is likely to lead very far; so it is probably best to accept each of the selections performed on its own merits.
The Ives work on the program was Three Places in New England. Ives composed it between 1912 and 1914; but it was not given its first performance until 1931, when Nicholas Slonimsky conducted the world premiere in Town Hall in New York with the Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Ives had composed the piece for large orchestra; but, in spite of ill health, he prepared a version with reduced resources for Slonimsky to conduct. The full score was not published until 1935 and was performed by the Boston Symphony, conducted by Richard Burgin, in 1948.
According to James Sinclair, who edited and published the scaled-down version Ives had prepared for Slonimsky, Three Places in New England “seems to have been one of his favorite compositions.” Each of the movements in this collection has a geographically specifically title:
- The “St.-Gaudens” in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment)
- Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut
- The Housatonic at Stockbridge
Each site is established through a generous repertoire of appropriated tunes (as is almost always the case with Ives) situated in a mood-setting (and generally dissonant) instrumental context, occasionally punctuated by specific sound effects.
The first movement is probably the most subtle, playing out minimal fragments from Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe” to avoid any explicit reference that would be too reductive. (The title refers to a monument unveiled in 1897 in memory of the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, formed during the Civil War. As those who saw the film Glory know, all of those soldiers died in battle.)
The third movement, on the other hand, comes closes to presenting sound effects, following the Housatonic River from its trickle at the source to the almost torrential strength of the waters at full force. In 1921 Ives rearranged the thematic material for a song setting Robert Underwood Johnson’s poem “To the Housatonic at Stockbridge.” This was published as Number 15 in his 114 Songs volume. In last night’s performance MTT had the SFS Chorus sing Johnson’s words in unison as Ives had set them against the material in his original score.
The middle movement is a Fourth of July celebration. Appropriation is at its thickest, and the rhetoric is at its most raucous. This is one of those pieces that will never be presented adequately through a recording because far too many things take place simultaneously across the full resources of the instrumental ensemble. As in his past Ives performances, MTT conducted with a firm command of what was supposed to happen when, somehow managing to keep all of the strident voices of the score in proper balance. This was clearly the most memorable part of the evening, even if his handling of the more meditative movements was just as powerfully affecting.
MTT decided to precede this “Ives adventure” with an “overture” in the form of the mixed a cappella chorus version of Lukas Foss’ “‘… then the rocks on the mountain began to shout’—Charles Ives.” While the title is a quote from Ives, the chorus does not sing words, only syllables intended to evoke first the landscape of the mountain itself, then the individual rocks, and finally, at the climax, the act of shouting. Foss’ rhetoric was far more polished than the Ivesian yawps that would follow, but his choral setting did much to establish a framework for the naturalism in Ives’ own music. Last night was the first time Foss’ piece was performed at an SFS concert. (In that respect it is worth noting that Three Places in New England has not been performed by SFS since February of 1974, not the best consideration to give such a significant entry in the canon of American music.)
The major work on the “Kubrick” portion of the program was Richard Strauss’ Opus 30 tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra” (thus spoke Zarathustra). This was preceded by Ragnar Bohlin conducting an a cappella performance by the SFS Chorus of György Ligeti’s “Lux aeterna;” and the section opened with Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube.” The Ligeti selection was most consistent with the first half of the program, complementing the adventurous a cappella approach that Foss had taken with a sense of texture that at least suggested Ives in his quieter moments. It is also worth noting that “Lux aeterna” approaches the text through its syllables (this time, however, under the assumption that most listeners already know the words). Indeed, the way in which the text is suggested, rather than stated, also recalls Ives’ treatment of Stephen Foster in Three Places in New England.
The account of “The Blue Danube” was, for the most part, straightforward, even if it never quite managed to be either joyous or sensuous. Kubrick had used the music as an icon for the mundane. MTT certainly made it clear that there was far more to this music than what we usually take as its clichés, but one got the impression that all of the spiritual energy for the evening had been saved for Ives.
Similarly, there seemed to be too much attention to those “pulling out the all the stops” moments in “Zarathustra” and not enough recognition of the tone poem as a whole. (Nevertheless, the presence of the organ was certainly stirring, even if the organist was playing from the console off-stage.) While any number of arguments can be made that Strauss never really understood the text by Friedrich Nietzsche that inspired this music, one can still appreciate the journey taken by the source. Musically, this journey involves intimate settings as well as the bombastically grand ones; and last night it seemed as if that intimacy (sometimes at the level of chamber resources) got the short end of the stick. One sad result is that, performed as the final selection, “Zarathustra” had to contend with making a long concert feel even longer, meaning that it would have benefitted from (and probably deserved) a far more conducive setting.