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Ionarts-at-Large: Alex Ross' Belmont Prize and an Evening of Americana

When Douglas Boyd spoke passionately—in his beautiful melodic Scottish—about Charles Ives as one of the most enigmatic 20th century composer to the audience of the Munich Chamber Orchestra’s audience, the introductory excerpts of the hymn tunes took on a slight melancholic Scottish twang. His preparatory remarks fell on fertile ground, as a good part of the audience had already been readied to appreciate an evening exploring a century of American (East-Coast) music by the preceding prize ceremony where Alex Ross received the Forberg-Schneider Foundation’s Belmont Prize and chatted with the MKO artistic director Alexander Liebreich about music in general and “The Rest is Noise” in particular: A charming, if none-too profound conversation, spiced-up and in turn defused by Liebreich’s narcissism and Ross’ near-diffident modesty.

Programming American music (with the possible exception of Carter who appeals to European modernist-seeking audiences) is usually a recipe for empty halls. It speaks to the intelligent programming and meticulous audience-building of the MKO that the beautiful Prinzregententheater was full. And once audiences turn out to hear it, whether prepared to accept the music or not, they do embrace American classics.

available at Amazon
C.Ives, Symphonies 2 & 3,
A.Litton / Dallas SO

available at Amazon
E.Carter, Sound Fields etc.,
O.Knussen / BBC SO

available at Amazon
A.Copland, Clarinet Concerto et al.,
S.Drucker / L.Bernstein / NYPhil
They certainly appreciated Aaron Copland’s snappy Clarinet Concerto and particularly the snake-charming contortions of Martin Fröst. The Swedish instrumentalist appreciates the physicality of playing the clarinet to the point of distraction, but never at the expense of unrivaled gorgeous playing. The bold white borders of his black suit (with equal hints of Wild West, Pan Am 70s revival, and Barnum & Bailey’s) picked up the Americana-theme of the evening. It also enhanced how Fröst associates every phrase with a motion or position. That, in turn, suited the stereotype that Copland created; a kind of resounding Americanism that never was, but that hit—literally—a chord with its audiences. It reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse’s characters that created a world of their own; real shadows of an invented reality. Until the cadenza finally penetrates this soppy world of would-be concord, it is a simple, calm beauty that pervades the Copland concerto. Especially compared to Ives’ Third Symphony which preceded it.

Charles Ives begins his Symphony with deceptively harmonious pleasantries that glide upward with the grace of imaginary young ladies on their way from Sunday school to the debutant ball. The honest, sturdy chorales and hymns seem innocent on their arrival in the brass. But Ives gently breaks each tune’s spine and bends them into a new construction of his own—a fluid musical cubism that reminds superficially of Mahler-episodes, except without the vulgarity. Humorous sometimes, sometimes clamorous, but the original grace—morphed manifold—remains the red thread that leads through it. When chords of Ives’ don’t go into the conventional direction they don’t melt subversively or rebelliously as they are prone to do in, say, Schnittke. Instead they strike as a wholly novel, brilliant solution to a new kind of beautiful. A marvelous composition that rewards keen ears on every new listening.

Listening to Elliot Carter, two things usually come to mind: “Boulez, but with a smile” and “Haydn”. Not that Carter and Haydn have any cursory commonalities, but the geniality of Carter, his humor (not in the ‘comic’ sense, but the mood and its underlying wit) seems to rhyme with Haydn. It is as if Carter was so secure in his pared-down, formally sound sophistication that he doesn’t also need to be unnecessarily serious about it. In that spirit, I found that the ears seemed to nod as they listened to his 2007 “Sound Fields”, as though the offering were optional, not didactic. The underlying pulse is undeniable—all the way to its stolen last sentence in B-flat-major.

Fitting, that the finale was a Haydn Symphony: The peckish Symphony N0.83 (‘La Poule’), which got a terrific performance that underlined the violent surprised and boldness throughout and kept the Minuet from becoming sonic duty with a jazzy bend. Avant-guard from 1785.

Picture © David Michalek