bartók and ives: a tale of two nationalists

On this coming weekend’s performances there are two seminal works of two major composers who blazed a trail for their respective nation’s modern musical heritage: the composers are Charles Ives and Béla Bartók, and the works are Ives’ Three Places in New England and Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto.  To round out the theme (intended or not) of musical progenitors, the father of the symphony, Joseph “Papa” Haydn is represented by his First and 104th Symphonies.

I’m not a big fan of Ives.  I think that comes from the fact that I took a 20th century music history course from a professor who had produced a bio/bibliography of Ives, and our unit on him was rather prolonged and intense.  I think I liked Ives at the time, but later got turned off by his apparent tinkering with his early works later in his life in order to make them seem more radical.  They hardly needed to be made more radical – they seem strikingly modern to this day, never mind 70 odd years ago.

Copland has often been referred to as the Dean of American Composers, and if that’s true, then Ives is the Provost.  He pioneered the use of folk and popular materials in American classical music, as well as using such novel techniques as tuning two pianos a quarter-tone apart, writing in several keys at once, and developing a distinctly Yankee-American sound world and point of view.  While rehearsing the Three Places in New England (each movement represents a different location or activity in early 20th century New England: I. The Saint-Gaudens in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment), II. Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut, and III. From the Housatonic at Stockbridge), I realized with a start how much a composer like John Adams owes to Ives.  Adams, like Ives, incorporates non-classical elements into his compositions, specifically popular music of the present day.  Adams also specializes in taking relatively simple rhythmic hooks and then jerking them off-kilter in mid-stream, resulting in some delightfully ear-tugging and toe-defying rhythms (delightful to hear, hard as hell to play!), just as Ives does, making a Yankee folk tune sound suddenly modern and hip by starting it on the wrong beat.  It’s interesting, because as I listen to the Ives, I hear nearly everything that was to come in the rest of the 20th century foreshadowed (either directly or indirectly) in his compositional techniques.  Ives could be thorny and cantankerous (both personally and in his music), but there is almost always an element of sardonic humor in the mix as well.  It’s worth noting that this work was given its Oregon Symphony premiere in 1976 under Lawrence Leighton Smith, and this weekend’s performances are only the second in the history of the orchestra.

Bartók was intensely interested in the native folk music of what is now present-day Hungary and Romania.  He traveled into the isolated enclaves of people who still sang the old songs, and painstakingly transcribed their music from the recordings he made on those journeys.  In the process, he absorbed the rhythmic and harmonic shifts of the Hungarian folk world into his more formalistic early works, resulting in a musical style which is at once both rustic and urbane.  His Second Piano Concerto is one of his crowning masterpieces.  His command of both the technical intricacies of both the solo piano and the orchestra is complete, and his use of just a wind and brass ensemble in the first movement is an innovative choice.  We have the incredible treat and honor of getting to collaborate with the great pianist Yefim Bronfman for this piece, a piece which he indisputably owns with his mastery of both color and the highest level of virtuosity.  Even if you see Bartók on the program and want to run screaming from the hall, I predict that you will find yourself enjoying this piece in the hands of a great pianist and a great orchestra.  The Bartók was last performed with the OSO in 1982 with pianist Joseph Kalichstein.

One Reply to “bartók and ives: a tale of two nationalists”

  1. Thanks, Charles, for the enlightening information about the upcoming concert. I’m rather surprised that Bartok 2 has even been performed before in Portland. I’ve always understood that the third concerto is the most widely performed and considered the most accessible to audiences. This is one concert that I’ve eagerly anticipated since the season was announced. I hope Portlanders make the most of the opportunity to hear this concert.

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