Reviews

Why Ives?

Jeffrey Stewart responds to Mark Fenton's review of Charles Ives' Symphony No. 4

By Jeffrey Stewart
Published June 27, 2007

(This article was actually published on June 28 but it was too good not to sneak into our June 27 issue, since we're not publishing again until late August. -Ed.)

Re: Charles Ives, Symphony No. 4 Review

Mark,

I must confess the strangeness of seeing a new music review for a recording decades old on the Raise the Hammer Site. Yet it intrigued me.

There are always countless Miles Davis and Sam Cooke reissues, but the Charles Ives's Fourth? I remember the Hamilton Public Library having a copy of it (usually always in stock), but oddly enough I never took it out.

I was certainly familiar with Leonard Bernstein's excellent versions of No. 2 and 3 (the third I always play at least once a month on a Sunday afternoon - don't ask me why) and his even more revelatory No. 2 on Deutsche Grammophon grouped with some of C.I.'s lesser known short orchestral pieces - most notably the wild and funny "Going Out on the Hook & Ladder" which vividly evokes an actual fire truck in action! The above maybe the single best Ives cd on the market.

Bernstein was always ambivalent towards many modern composers (eg. the Second Viennese School, Carter, Crumb, Boulez) but played Ives with the same love and dedication as he did Mahler and Beethoven and considered him rightfully the founder of modern American music.

My first encounter with the 4th Symphony as the old 1965 Columbia lp directed by Stokowski. His was, I think, a smaller force than what was called for (but I mean who plays Mahler's 8th with 1000 performers anymore?), yet I still warm to this version, as I find Stoki, like Lenny B, truly sincere yet frustrating musical persona.

Both men were flamboyant conductors, near Hollywoodish in their expressions and manners, however at their best, seemed to be able to deliver the real thing.

I recall hearing a Stokowski arrangement on the radio of one of Shostakovich's piano preludes and was then left in a state of near paralysis. It was that good (incidentally his recordings of Symphonies 5, 6 and 11 by DSCH are without parallel). And I can't imagine anyone listening to Bernstein's version of Ives' Unanswered Question without being moved near-to-tears.

My most memorable encounter with the Ives Fourth dates back to a sultry night one summer in the early 1990's, when I was still working as classical music manager for Sam the Record Man [on James North]. It was about an hour and a half before closing - not a customer to be seen.

Now this was typical, being located in the Hammer's North End and having at that particular point in time a crack house operating under the prospects of "Sevil's Tavern", complete with pimps, pushers, underage prostitutes ... you get the picture.

Upstairs on the second floor where the classical and jazz departments dwelt, I had a great view of James Street and action below and had an equally great five speaker sound system, allowing me to take in every bar of this crazy symphony.

At the beginning of the Allegretto I remember catching glimpse of a young girl moving her hips rhythmically and I tell you no lies, was using the corner stop sign as a dancer's pole to move on to attract potential clients.

Needless to say she didn't have to wait long!

Shaking my head, I went back to concentrating on the music..which by now was by now was the famous football scene, which to this day conjures dozens of images streaking across my memory like 4 or 5 film repeats of Tiger Cat games happening all at the same time, crisscrossing and molding together.

I can't remember much else after that except a near ten minute period of dark peaceful calm, then I think a distant echo of the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee".

After that I think my night manager threatened to cut the wiring on the stereo if I ever dared to play anything like that ever again. The lone pretty cashier that had been on since 5pm came up the stairs and told me that I was a freak - but interesting. I took it as a compliment.

Ironically, as much as I love Ives' music, I have never played the Ives 4th again since that day. There have been other recordings by Ozawa, von Dohnannyi, there is even a brand new one out on the Hyperion label (I can't recall the conductor) but I have not checked them out.

I think you once told me that Eno gave away White Light/White Heat after a first hearing. That's how I felt about the Ives fourth. I didn't want to spoil a good thing. Like Penderecki's "Devils of Loudon", J. Pollock's #31, or for that matter Cassavettes' "Husbands".

It takes years to fully assemble the implications these initial encounters leave on our psyches and our futures.

A low-key Hamiltonian who has been amassing poetry since about the age of 15, Mr. Stewart has worked in various careers including managing the classical department at the downtown Sam the Record Man, operating a catering company, and managing an out-of-print bookstore. Mr. Stewart enjoys life with his wife and family of cats.

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By Anonymous (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2008 at 12:00:30

"The lone pretty cashier that had been on since 5pm came up the stairs and told me that I was a freak - but interesting. I took it as a compliment."

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