Sunday, January 3, 2016

Musing About Charles Ives...

So we my orchestra recently did a collaboration with the local professional orchestra, and the piece we played with them was Charles Ives' 2nd Symphony.
I have to say, I was a little more than disappointed. I had been daydreaming about the upcoming collaboration, and when I found out we were playing something that didn't strike me as awesome the first time I listened to it... well, I was all gloomy. And while a part of me still wishes we had played something uber righteous and awesome (like say, Bolero!!), another part of me is happy I got a chance to play this!
To most people, the most notable thing about this symphony is that it ends on the most hideous, dissonant, and ear-pulling-out bad chord. Ever. Now why people think that makes for musical progress is anybody's guess, but I had some fun friendly-debating it with the conductor of the professional symphony, Mr. Max Bragado-Darman.
I asked him how something ugly like that could have merit? I mean, he himself admitted it was ugly! So how could it have merit?
He said that even though that last chord is the most ugly thing ever, it opens up the door to limitless possibilities and adventure. I appreciated the time he took to explain his thoughts on the matter, and in a very non-patronizing way, too! Even though I don't fully agree. Look at what Debussy, Ravel, and many other composers have done pushing the limits of what was accepted in music! And they did it without resorting to hollow noise.
But still! It gave me something to think about, and in a weird way, through that discussion, I actually started thinking more seriously about the symphony!
What I find notable about Ives' 2nd is that it uses many well known American folk tunes, making this a truly American symphony. A contribution to the classical repertoire that we can proudly call our own.
The sometimes clashy nature of how the tunes weave together comes from Ives' childhood. His father was a band director, and often took his son to the park where all the bands practiced. Young Charles Ives would sit and listen, mesmerized by the cacophony of all the bands playing different things at once.
My orchestra only joined the pros on the stage at the start of the 4th movement (that was to decrease the workload on us, so we'd only have to work on two movements), so we had to spend a lot of time backstage listening to the first three movements. For four nights in a row.
So during that time, I was able to notice and appreciate a lot about the music!
Many themes and motifs surface multiple times, and are developed to the fullest in the 5th movement. There is so much amazing brass action, it was dazzling to hear. Ives really knew how to bring out the best in the brass section. It gave me chills to hear!
Contrary to what I was thinking at the beginning of the season, I actually had a ton of fun playing the Ives. I flaunted the little Piccolo & Snare Drum march, double tongued that crazy bit at the end with zest, and (shocking, considering my sensibilities!) even played that last note as obnoxiously as I could. I actually accidently held it too long on the Saturday night concert, and for a second there, I was a soloist. Not the good kind. But it was okay, everyone was laughing. So no harm done!
The lesson here I guess is...
1. Things are almost never as bad as you think they are going to be!
2. Even if you don't approve of everything in a piece of music, it can still at least give you something to think about.
3. Give it a chance! If you stop thinking about the one chord at the end that bugs you for five seconds, you might even find things about the rest of it that you really like! Don't throw out 45 minutes of coolness for three seconds of ugly.

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