At the end of March of 2015, this site reported on the beginning of a project to record the orchestral works of Charles Ives. The conductor was Andrew Davis leading the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and the first recording was released by Chandos Records. Given that Ives was described in that previous dispatch as “perhaps the most quintessentially American composer that our country has yet produced,” the combination of a British label and conductor with an Australian ensemble was bound to raise some eyebrows. Davis’ career plans have taken him to Chicago (where he is currently Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Lyric Opera of Chicago) and Pittsburgh; but his repertoire preferences seem to suggest that Britannia is very much in his heart and soul.
On the other hand the first report of Davis’ project observed that Ives’ music was almost entirely neglected during his lifetime. Early efforts to perform many of his more complex orchestral works were noble efforts that tended to lose the spirit while getting bogged down in the letters. Even today it is hard to find many conductors that really appreciate the nature of that spirit; and the result is that, for most concert audiences, the music of Ives comes off as more enigmatic and challenging than even some of the thorniest products of the Second Viennese School.
In that context Davis’ decision to begin with the first two symphonies was a judicious one. Ives interest in “Americana” can be found in both of them; but the movements tend to adhere to traditional symphonic structures. The spirit lies in how Ives deploys familiar American tunes, but his approach to thematic content is not that different from what one encounters in the symphonies of Antonín Dvořák.
In this respect the second volume is a radical departure from the first. All of the selections would best be described as tone poems; but the “poetry” is intensely meditative and personal, rather than narrative in the sense of what one encounters in the tone poems of, for example, Richard Strauss. These include meditations on how four major holidays were celebrated during Ives’ upbringing in New England, composed at different times but collected under the common title A Symphony: New England Holidays. Similarly, there is his first orchestral set, to which he gave the title Three Places in New England. The recording also includes two short individual pieces, “Central Park in the Dark” and “The Unanswered Question.”
In all eight of the compositions involved in this recording, Ives escalates his “Americana” mindset from a source of tunes that are readily recognized by those who know them to a more nebulous and ambiguous landscape from which familiar features appear and then vanish almost as soon as they are recognized. The problem, however, resides in that adjective “familiar.” So many of the underlying elements of “Americana” are no longer part of the mindset of American listeners, let alone listeners from any other country. In the four movements of the “holidays” symphony, “George Washington’s Birthday” is no longer celebrated; and it would be hard to find many who even recognize “Decoration Day” as the name of a holiday. The “landmarks” of Three Places in New England are likely to be unfamiliar even to those living near them; and, of course, the Central Park of Ives’ day is hardly what it is today.
For all of those difficulties, Davis has still put together some highly satisfying accounts of what Ives committed to his score pages. As far as spirit is concerned, he is probably more informed of the contexts that surround those score pages than most of his listeners are or will be. As a result he may find himself in the position of being one of the few conductors both willing and able to provide acceptable performances of music that clearly meant much to its composer but never seemed to be embraced by very many advocates or champions. If all that Davis can bring to the table is the right blend of competence and integrity, we should be thankful that he is willing to engage his talents in the interest of Ives’ legacy.