The music of the quintessential American musical iconoclast Charles Ives‹by turns folksy and polytonal, invoking jazz, ragtime, and American popular song‹can still raise eyebrows and stir controversy. It also captures the passionate interest of four dynamic American conductors who this month lead five Philharmonic programs devoted to the Connecticut Yankee, his contemporaries, and his acolytes in the New York Philharmonic Festival: Charles Ives‹An American Original in Context.
David Robertson and Alan Gilbert have established careers in Europe and are now assuming major positions in the United States. Mr. Robertson, who this year completes his tenure as music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, is music director designate of the Saint Louis Symphony; Mr. Gilbert, chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, this summer becomes the first music director of the Santa Fe Opera. Their European experience has provided them with a fresh framework for cool, rational assessments of the American scene. "For nine years," Mr. Robertson notes, "I lectured on American music in Europe and was amazed by the combination of incredulity and wonder that would greet Ives's music. It was to some extent by being away from the United States that I came to fully appreciate his work."
Songs played a huge part in Ives's sound world, and Alan Gilbert, admired for his accomplishments as a conductor of both opera and symphonic music, leads a program that juxtaposes song settings by Ives with those by Mahler and Copland. Mr. Gilbert observes that the program's goal is to "look at what was happening in the world of songwriting at that time."He adds that "to allow the audience to compare and contrast the approaches of these composers, who were at once revolutionary and traditional, we have grouped the songs not by composer, but in a kaleidoscopic fashion."
Throughout much of the 20th century, U.S. orchestras believed that a European on the podium brought prestige and cachet, so with few opportunities in their home country, American maestros often spent their entire careers abroad. In contrast, the Philharmonic's Music Director, Lorin Maazel, who leads the final program in the Ives celebration, represents the current frontline of American maestros who have always been warmly welcomed on both sides of the pond. He sees Ives as a forerunner of today's musical culture, someone who "opened up vistas that were perhaps not readily perceived by composers outside of the United States and only vaguely by those within our own frontiers. As a musician," says Mr. Maazel, "I am very grateful to him for having opened those vistas."
Like Ives, composer John Adams draws on American history and popular sources to produce work that embraces both "high" and "low" genres. Mr. Adams is, moreover, a conductor, who will lead the Ives Festival's fourth program. His orchestrations of three Ives songs share the bill with the world premiere of his own new work, written with the soprano Audra McDonald in mind (see page 12). Mr. Adams comments: "Audra McDonald has chosen to perform a set of turn-of-the-century songs by Ives and his contemporaries that we are calling Songs of Ragtime and Reminiscence. They will be interwoven with vaudeville-era rags and ballads that share the earmarks of that era in American musical culture."
That era‹Ives's era‹was a period in which American culture began to assert itself against European hegemony. Fifty years after Ives's death, four energetic Americans who ply their art around the globe pay tribute to the first musician who was unapologetically American at a time when, as Ives wrote in his memoirs, "It seems to be the general opinion that, unless a man has studied most of his life in a European conservatory, he has no right (and does not know how) to throw anything at an audience, good or bad."
Mario Mercado serves as research editor of Travel and Leisure magazine and is the author of The Evolution of Mozart's Pianistic Style.