the premiere of Johnny Reinhard's new performing version of Charles
Ives' Universe Symphony at Lincoln Center, New York.
by Kyle Gann
Man, did opinions diverge concerning Johnny Reinhard’s completion of Charles Ives’s Universe Symphony at Alice Tully Hall June 6! Some aficionados found the work unworthy of Ives’s oeuvre, others thought it a transcendent new masterpiece. I leaned toward the transcendent side. It’s true that the first half-hour—drums, cymbals, and gongs marking off varying simultaneous tempos—was too uninflected to remind you of anything else in Ives’s work, but that was the section that came most documentably straight from Ives’s sketches. More conceptual than musical, it was a little tedious, but soon nine flutes ushered in a 45-minute crescendo of excitement.
There were no quotations, no hymn tunes, no rollicking folk songs nor marching bands out of sync. The remainder sounded like the least recognizable moments in Ives: the opening beats of “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” parts of the Second Orchestral Set, cloudier passages from “Emerson” in the Concord Sonata. The muddily orchestrated streams of meandering melodies, tonal within themselves but dissonant to the overall texture, sounded like a memory of Ives, and anything more tangible would have ill served the purported program: creation of heaven and earth. The final minutes lapsed into dazzling beauty: the horns suddenly burst forth in a singular angular melody, the orchestra paused a few times to allow piano chords and gongs to die into nothingness, and those nine flutes covered the whole with a silvery sheen.
It didn’t detract that this was the most comically crisis-laden performance within memory. Reinhard, uncharacteristically tuxedoed and waving like a traffic cop, kept having to cancel out performers who threatened to enter too early, and you could track the drama unfolding onstage by the puzzled looks of the two assistant conductors, Charles Zachary Bornstein and Cory Crossman. Reinhard’s American Festival of Microtonal Music Orchestra couldn’t afford as many full rehearsals as a smooth performance would have required, yet the visual shenanigans never translated into sonic interruptions. And at the mystical end, an almost full Alice Tully Hall rose at once for a standing ovation: a fitting tribute, not necessarily for this performance, but for Reinhard’s relentless sleuth work on Ives’s sketches and his 14 years of dedication in providing New York’s most finely tuned musical offerings.
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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