Tilson Thomas brings Ives to life
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
with Michael Tilson Thomas
By Andrew Patner
Repeated Saturday at 8 p.m.
The singular American maverick composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) is more talked about than he is heard in the concert hall. Outside of the mystical The Unanswered Question and Three Places in New England, it is mostly his remarkable songs that are performed -- works that both capture the Victorian America of the composer's youth and filter it through his own collagist style, part Proust, part Cubist before its time.
Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, has been an advocate for Ives throughout his career and his 1986 recording (now available on a Sony CD) of the rarely played A Symphony: New England Holidays (1909-1920, rev. 1933) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has long been considered one of the finest recordings of any work by the eccentric New Englander. To hear “MTT,” as he is known, lead the work here again for the first time in 22 years, and now with the Ives Critical Edition, promised to be a highlight of the whole CSO season. Thursday night's performance confirmed that promise and then some.
Tilson Thomas chose to introduce the seemingly sprawling work -- an assembly of four salutes to different American holidays -- with a small group from the Chicago Symphony Chorus singing five hymns and songs that Ives used as inspiration and material for his manipulations. This excellent choice put material into the audience's head that would have been immediately familiar in the early decades of the last century when Ives wrote the individual pieces. It also allowed listeners to realize both the subtlety and the intricacy of the full work that followed.
From the Jew's harp in “Washington’s Birthday” to “Taps” in “Decoration Day” to competing orchestras (complete with a second conductor!) in “The Fourth of July” and his own scoring for mixed chorus in “Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day,” Ives weaves sounds in and around the traditional orchestra to make a piece that is much a work of philosophy, nostalgia, literature, and history as it is an engulfing sea of wholly irresistible musical pandemonium. Tilson Thomas is this music's champion in every sense of the word.
Would that the same could be said of his rushed and pseudo-whimsical take on Dvorák's 1889 G Major Symphony, Op. 88, now known as the Eighth. Whether this tepid performance was the result of rehearsal time spent on the unique complexities of the Ives, preparations for this week's CSO presentations of the conductor's tribute to his late grandparents, The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theatre, or some greater reason is hard to know. But the appearance of the work on the program of the orchestra that played it under Dvorák himself at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition is an opportunity to salute the memory of Otakar (Otto) Sroubek, a refugee from Communist Czechoslovakia who was a CSO violinist for 47 years before retiring three years ago. Sroubek, a gentle man with gem-like blue eyes, died in Downers Grove on May 6 at 84.