For those of us who pursued a career in music in our younger years, especially when funded by parents, the phrase “something else to fall back on” was a persistent admonition that implored us to grow up and get a real job. It is a rare feat when one “falls back” on a highly successful and profitable non-musical career while still pursuing their musical goals and eventually gaining world-wide recognition in that realm. Charles Ives is such a figure. Acknowledged now as a most singular voice in music history, he spent most of his professional life in the insurance business and even laid the groundwork for concepts and practices that remain in effect in that industry today.
Even more than 50 years after his death, Charles Ives’ music is approached with caution and is often programmed as an oddity, if at all. So the presentation of “An Ives Experience” by faculty of the UNC Chapel Hill Music Department was a rare opportunity to hear an entire evening devoted to this most American of composers. Anchoring the performance was pianist Stefan Litwin, newly appointed George Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Music. Dr. Litwin was an affable host as he spoke with great knowledge and affection of the works that were performed.
Ives’ music is a curious mix of the cerebral and emotional as he braids a double helix of complexity with heartfelt simplicity and nostalgia. Most of the works played clearly demonstrated this dichotomy, especially the songs. Soprano Terry Rhodes, along with pianist Litwin, sang three mini-sets of Ives’ songs – several of them set to the composer’s poetry. These served as an aural palate cleanser to the heavier fare, and were dispersed throughout the program. Most of the texts dealt with nature, home and childhood and Miss Rhodes was able to convey the poetic sense and emotion.
One of Ives’ most celebrated works is his mammoth Piano Sonata No.2, subtitled “Concord,” in which each of the four movements is named for a writer or poet who at one time lived in or near Concord, Massachusetts. Litwin played only the second movement, “Hawthorne” and any question about this newest UNC faculty member’s pianistic and interpretive chops was quickly put to rest. There is good reason why this sonata is rarely taken out in public. It would take a mathematician to decipher the rhythmic complexities, especially applied to the frightening speed that is attained. But then, that all stops on a dime and there is Bachian chorale repose, we catch our breath and then we’re off again to explore other worlds.
The first half ended with violinist Richard Luby performing the Second Violin Sonata, written between 1914-17. The three movements are descriptively named "Autumn," "In the Barn" and "The Revival." These are more or less meant to portray the New England seasons and surprisingly, the time “in the barn,” in winter, is the most raucous and rowdy. Sections of that movement sound like a bluegrass fiddler on acid, and Luby seemed to have lots of fun with that.
The second half opener was perhaps the most intriguing Ives experience of the evening. When I saw the title “Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two Pianos” I made the incorrect assumption that the player would somehow manually alter pitches inside the piano. However, the second piano was completely tuned a quarter-tone pitch below the first.
Imagining how this must sound falls short of what was actually heard – a truly unique musical encounter that far surpasses any chance of mere gimmickry. Fellow UNC faculty pianist Mayron Tsong joined in the fun as the pianist closest to the audience, since they played in parallel formation as opposed to the usual spooning for two pianos.
If you had to pick one work of Ives which is probably the most played, at least in terms of chamber music, it would most likely be his Piano Trio. Cellist Brent Wissick joined violinist Luby and Litwin for an energetic and passionate performance of this work which encapsulates everything that is Ives. Probably the best-known movement is the second, with the marking “TSIAJ” that stands for “This Scherzo Is a Joke” and indeed it is, as a seemingly unrelated cacophony of different songs, meters, tempos and tonalities somehow meld into one very trippy musical quilt. The cellist has the last word as he plays the unadorned but powerful “Rock of Ages” above the piano’s delicious dissonances and unresolved suspensions.