UW Musicians Explore the Strange World of Charles Ives

Charles Ives

Charles Ives

Charles Ives may be the most important American composer you’ve never heard of. An eccentric, reclusive figure whose music often treads the line between lyrical beauty and pure noise, his work inspired an entire generation of composers, but never quite captured the public imagination in the same way as the music of American figureheads like Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. For most of his life, Ives lived a modest existence, selling insurance by day and writing music by night. Active in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century, he penned hundreds of compositions, ranging from solo piano pieces to works for full orchestra.

This week, from May 6 to 8, the University of Washington shines the spotlight on Ives with three days of lectures and performance exploring the composer’s life and work. Organized by UW School of Music professor Larry Starr, “A Festival of Ives” kicked off yesterday with a performance by the UW Symphony, conducted by Jonathan Pasternack. The highlight of the evening was an appearance by baritone William Sharp, who joined the orchestra for Ives’ Orchestral Songs. An acclaimed devotee of modern American composers, particularly Ives, Sharp is in town for all three days of the festival, presenting performances each evening.

Ives loved the landscape and culture of his native Connecticut, a passion that found its way into his compositions, whether in the form of quotations of New England folk tunes or musical depictions of the Appalachian landscape. Nowhere is Ives’ love for New England more apparent than in his Orchestral Songs. Arranged by John Adams (an Ives fan and noted composer in his own right), the five short songs lean towards the nostalgic, whisking the audience away on a tour of Ives’ favorite sights and sounds.

William Sharp (Photo: Christian Steiner)

William Sharp (Photo: Christian Steiner)

Sharp’s smooth baritone easily sailed over the orchestra throughout the songs, illuminating spoken quotations by philosopher Henry David Thoreau (a fellow New Englander whom Ives greatly admired) as well as lyrical arrangements of “Down East” and “At the River”, two traditional hymns. The most vivid song in the cycle, “At the River” combined Sharp’s melodic vocal line with broad strokes of sound from the orchestra. Rich swells in the strings and a sprinkling of cool piano notes popped out at opportune moments to accentuate Sharp’s phrases.

An experimental composer far ahead of his time, Ives was fascinated by the boundaries between music and noise. Calcium Light Night evokes a college tradition at Yale where robed fraternity members parade through the campus, singing songs and marching to the light of a calcium lamp. Snare and bass drum capture the feeling of a solemn procession while a ragtag chorus of woodwind and brass instruments weaves in and out, imitating the ebbing and swelling ranks of parade members. From the Steeples and the Mountains transports the audience into the fog-covered Appalachian foothills. Metal chimes depict the peal of church bells far in the distance while snippets of folk melodies fade in and out. Eventually, the wash of sound from two gongs covers everything as the fog rolls in for the night.

Last night’s theme of Americana continued with nods to Copland and Barber. The orchestra’s strings shone in Copland’s Appalachian Spring, painting washes of rich color throughout while excellent solos from concertmaster Sol Im and flutist Natalie Ham floated above the peaceful soundscape. UW junior Allison Salvador wowed the crowd with his performance of Barber’s Violin Concerto, drawing a standing ovation for his flying fingers during the explosive third movement. A rousing performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 rounded out the evening’s program.

“A Festival of Ives” continues with more events this evening. Hear Sharp’s baritone in a more intimate setting with a lecture-recital on American Parlor Song. Tonight, local pianist Cristina Valdes performs Ives “Concord” Sonata, a virtuosic tribute to notable New Englanders including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott. Tomorrow evening, UW faculty members present a program of Ives’ songs and chamber music.

Originally posted in The SunBreak on May 7, 2013.

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