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Ives/Brant A Concord Symphony

San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas

SFS 0038




Released on the San Francisco Symphony's own label, this is virtually a new work, on the one hand loyal to the original masterpiece of Charles Ives (1874-1954) but it is inevitably greatly changed in sensitive orchestration by a devoted disciple, the significant experimental American composer Henry Brant (1913-2008) - "a labour of love which took him 30 years and reached completion only in the mid-1990s".

The medium is the message. McLuhan's well-worn phrase has never seemed more appropriate than in listening to Charles Ives’ cumulative and monumental piano work, the Concord Sonata in its orchestrated version by Henry Brant, A Concord Symphony. The piece becomes fundamentally transformed.

Ives left his Concord Sonata intentionally "unfinished", relishing over the course of several decades the process of tweaking and refining the score, usually by the addition of ever wilder dissonances and complexities. He most probably would have heartily welcomed the intertextual exchange of fellow composers expanding on his ideas.

He himself had begun orchestrating parts of the Concord, which he never completed, but which show up in other orchestral works like the 4th Symphony or the Emerson Concerto (another unfinished project). 

A more radical reworking of Ives' material can be seen in two independent realizations of Ives' unfinished Universe Symphony by Johnny Reinhard and Larry Austin. The two works are so extremely different in scope and detail, one example being that Reinhard's Universe is nearly twice as long as Austin's. 

Ives undoubtedly left behind a more comprehensive and complete score of his Concord Sonata than he did for the Universe Symphony, the 1947 version he revised himself being the source most pianists draw upon in working on the piece. Brant seems to have also taken this edition as his starting point.  From there he joyfully and giddily explores unusual and highly intriguing orchestral representations of the piano writing. He also spent a good 30 years developing his orchestral Concord, as long a timespan as Ives took to write and further develop his sonata. 

The inevitable question in this undertaking is, what remains of Ives?  The orchestrated Concord seems to say more about Henry Brant than Charles Ives. This is not an inherent criticism - Brant is a highly imaginative and idiosyncratic composer in his own right, and, like Ives, was regrettably underappreciated and underexposed during his lifetime.   His "Ives Symphony" is a powerful work to behold, with bold gestures and a formidable energetic sweep. Its sunny positive demeanor is infectious.  For Ives lovers, though, the experience of listening to the piece leaves an aching feeling of incompleteness. What remains of Ives the brooding melancholic? Henry Brant's Marching Band tunes seem to come more from 30s-era Hollywood musical extraveganzas than Ives’ vulgarly diabolical and chaos-inducing clashes of marching band regiments.  The edges are smoothed and the eccentricities softened.    

Some fundamental aspects of Ives' compositional techniques must also be changed to realize an orchestral version. Ives avoids barlines in the Concord Sonata, allowing the interpreter to be liberated from restrictive pulse confinements, enabling an organic, breathing quality in the performance. By necessity, a conductor must have a pulse schema by which he can lead an orchestra, thereby putting the music back on the kind of grid Ives was seeking to transcend.  What might sound improvisational in the Sonata sounds tightly molded in the Symphony. Brant does this convincingly, and it leads to a strong sense of cohesion in the work, though perhaps at the cost of more meditative and timeless qualities. This fundamental rhythmic change makes the opening of the second movement, Hawthorne, almost unrecognizable, though the pitch material is almost identical. Brant and Ives' characters converge in the pious chorals, both in Hawthorne and the Alcotts.  Brant's shimmering orchestrations of these simultaneously homely and transcendent expressions of New England uprightness are enormously moving. Thoreau is fleeting and wistful, the quote of Stephen Foster's Massa's in de Cold Ground seems to be whistled rather than lamented. In Brant’s representation Thoreau’s orchestral flute over Walden pond is radiant and uplifting, while pianists tend to endow it with a more ponderous, intimate, even ominous, quality.

The performance of the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas is outstanding.  That one can find an orchestral performance sprightly and lithe next to the comparatively lumbering solo piano equivalent is a testament not only to Brant's crisp scoring, but also to the agility of this symphonic body.  The recordings are taken from live performance recordings from 2010.  Unfortunately, Ives himself never had the privilege of hearing such masterful and virtuostic performances of his own orchestral works (with all due respect to Bernard Herrmann, Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski).

Heather O’Donnell

See also in Musical Pointers: Heather O'Donnell and Charles Ives

Heather O'Donnell - Piano recital broadcast from Cologne

San Francisco Chronicle: - - To listen to "A Concord Symphony" brilliantly orchestrated by the late Henry Brant is to feel an exhilarating sense of discovery and dramatic vigor, an explosive dynamism that emanates from all the participants. - - Copland's Organ Symphony, with soloist Paul Jacobs, also gets a majestic reading, although it's a bit overshadowed in context.