I spent the day in Berlin. Not physically; but mentally. Connecting to the digital concert hall at 1:30 local time, I remained until 5:30. I was eager to hear Ingo Metzmacher lead a performance of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony and later to hear Pierre-Laurent Aimard play the Concord Sonata. I had the homefield advantage. Bridgeport, CT, where I live, is close to Danbury where Ives was born, Yale, where he went to school, and is also close to Manhattan, where he worked.
The centerpiece of the program performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker was the Ives Symphony No. 4. The work was an experiment is accessing simultaneous realities projected from multiple spaces within the hall. The music always sounds too compressed in audio recordings; it has to be heard live in order to be understood. How would it translate through the Digital Concert Hall? The sound is unique to the medium; which transmits dimension and impressions enhanced by visual layering from its camera angles.
Metzmacher described the opening prelude as a “questioning.” The hymn-tune voiced by the choir at the close of the brief first movement is an encoded dialog between two “characters;” a “Watchman” and a “Traveller.” The phrases beginning with the word “watchman” are spoken by the traveller and vice-versa. At the close of the movement the watchman asks if the traveller has seen the “beautious ray.” The following three movements pose differing answers to the question—what might the ray look like? Where should we be looking for it?
Ives described the second movement as a comedy. It is about a contrast between the present; which Ives described as the loud and busy “easy life;” during which we are often distracted, and “the trials of the pilgrims through the swamps and rough country,” which progressed slowly through pain and deliberation. Had Ives lived into the 21st century he would have understood that he anticipated our playlists. The 21st century has perfected overlayed music, we soak in clouds of sometimes tinny, sometimes obtrusively loud simultaneities.
Metzmacher allowed the collisions to be sharply edged, and allowed some passages in locked ensembles to lead tempos slightly outside of his beats. This technique greatly amplified the richness of its spaces. The fourth of July celebration that closes the second movement was fabulous and as the movement stopped unresolved silence spread into the hall magnificent in itself.
The third movement was a response of the past—a fugue of hymn tunes, with additional voices sometimes voiced by horn and sometimes trombone (Ives allowed for either option in the score).
The finale had an elegant sense of procession in this performance; it became like a ritual. From the “Memorial Slow March” through the quodlibet of hymn tunes that collides and bumps together just before the entrance of the choir, there was a clarity that most orchestras give up on. The choir sang words at the closing; in prior performances I have always heard them sing wordless in this movement.
The Ives stood apart from the other repertoire on this program. I think the program would have made a better impression if the Cuban overture had been on the second half and Ives was alone on the first half of the program…the Cuban overture disappeared in the shadow of the Ives.
But the Cuban Overture, the Antheil Jazz Symphony, and the Symphonic Dances by Bernstein all featured crisp articulations and were relaxed and fun. The Berliner Philhamoniker’s performance remind us that these works are filled with traditional symphonic developments and motivic transformations. It made their orchestral influences seem as clear as their secular influences.