the premiere of Johnny Reinhard's new performing version of Charles
Ives' Universe Symphony at Lincoln Center, New York.
In Bells and Microtones, A Legend Comes to Life
by Alex Ross
Charles Ives’s “Universe Symphony” started out as a musical rumor, almost a folk legend. Stories were told of a mad sketch for orchestras playing atop mountains, voicing the murmur of nature and the music of the spheres. It was taken for granted that the symphony could not be realized on Ives’s terms. The myth of Ives as a craggy prophet implied that only later, better-heeled composers could undertake such complex schemes. (Enter Karlheinz Stockhausen.)
But near the end of the century, Ives is no longer the precursor. He remains the largest figure in American music. People are no longer satisfied with the legend of the inspired Yankee amateur; they want the facts of the matter, what he wrote and how. A curious crowd showed up to see the world premiere of Johnny Reinhard’s reconstruction of the “Universe” at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday night. The preliminary verdict? The “Universe” is indeed a real work. Not a daydream. But Mr. Reinhard’s version has problems, and his performance with the American Festival of Microtonal Music Orchestra left much to be desired.
Mr. Reinhard is the second to try to traverse the “Universe.” First came Larry Austin, whose version was recorded by the Centaur label. Both begin with a similar extended movement of percussion: each instrument pronouncing a different rhythmic pulse over a fundamental tolling bell, with the pulses accumulating, a quickening and fading in long cycles. But Mr. Austin’s bell rings every eight seconds, Mr. Reinhard’s every 16; the latter pace is gruelingly slow. Mr. Austin also had electronic click tracks to help his 20 players keep on the beat, while the Reinhard players struggled to regulate pulses in their heads.
The two “Universes” diverge in the full-orchestra second section, depicting various earthly landscapes. Mr. Reinhard has kept closer to Ives’s messy manuscripts; he claims they are actually complete. He has come up with some interesting ideas in instrumentation: huge, gleaming brass and wind chords, unexpected parings like oboe and tuba, wild bassoon solos. (Mr. Reinhard is also a bassoonist.) Cellos and basses intone endless “earth chords” underneath; an organ (here Donald Joyce) roars sporadically at the back.
This is not the familiar Ives of hymns and marching tunes. The idiom is heavily dissonant, with much microtonal playing as well. Listening to the Reinhard version, I had a sense of music going in and out of focus: total murk in the “Wide Valleys and Clouds” section, but a luminous complexity in “Birth of the Oceans,” where you can hear the separate entries over the percussion. (Rising figures in fourths and fifths bring to mind Strauss’s “Zarathustra.”) There are also striking soundscapes in the final “Heaven” section, depicting the earth covered by night: a C-major chord provides sudden, soft illumination.The 71-piece orchestra had obviously worked hard at a nearly impossible task. Still, it teetered. Whole sections meandered at times; a flurry of nine flutes sounded perpetually lost. Tully Hall didn’t help, adding a soupy acoustic. It was, however, a noble effort, and the work of reassembling the “Universe” should continue. The prelude and “Birth of the Oceans” could be performed apart; a smaller ensemble, helped by click tracks, might produce clearer textures. With more work, this transcendental sketch might reach the same almost-authentic plateau as Mahler’s Tenth.
Charles Ives at the Stereo Society:
To Charles Ives' Stereo Society home page
Tradition And The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
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