All-American Menu with Ives Masterpiece

United StatesUnited States  Rouse, Bernstein, Ives: Joshua Bell (violin), Representatives of the New York Choral Consortium, Kent Tritle (director), Eric Huebner (piano), Case Scaglione (second conductor), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 18.4.2013 (BH)

Christopher Rouse: Prospero’s Rooms (2012, World premiere)
Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion (1953-54)
Ives: Symphony No. 4 (ca. 1912-18, rev. ca. 1921-25)

In 2004, five years before Alan Gilbert became the New York Philharmonic’s Music Director, he led the orchestra in a memorable reading of Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony. Almost a decade later Gilbert returned, with—if anything—an even more transparent, more detailed view. His poise commanding the massive forces in Avery Fisher Hall (the stage had to be extended around 20 feet to accommodate them all) was striking; one of the many indelible images of the night was watching Assistant Conductor Case Scaglione standing next to Gilbert at the podium, each leading a different time signature. (When the 83-year-old Leopold Stokowski led the 1965 premiere with the American Symphony Orchestra, he enlisted the help of two conductors, David Katz and José Serebrier.) And in navigating Ives’s turbulent waters, Gilbert only seemed to grow calmer as the score’s density increased.

In a little over a half-hour, Ives packs in more musical material than some composers do in three times that amount of time. In the opening movement members of the New York Choral Consortium (over 100 strong and directed by Kent Tritle) poured forth “Watchman, tell us of the night,” with sweep and articulation, the orchestra swirling around them. Two harps and five strings perched in an upper tier added an otherworldly spatial aspect. In the magnificently chaotic Allegretto, bursting with tuneful Americana, I had the uncanny image of the interior of Grand Central Station, in which thousands of people cross paths without running into each other. Gilbert, Scaglione and the orchestra maintained course amid a tornado of hymns, folk songs and others—scholars have identified around thirty, even if some appear only as snippets. Contrasts abound: just as one noticed the last desk of second violins gently immersed in a repeating, rocking motif, all hell broke loose elsewhere in the ensemble. Gilbert ended the fray as calmly as if he were checking his watch.

The majestic third movement fugue showed the strings’ power and sinewy presence, with a fabulously lone trumpet at the end. And the final Largo maestoso—mysterious and complex—blends a primal percussion pulse with more tunes wafting through: the Universe collides with nostalgia. Throughout, Gilbert maintained a steady hand as the orchestral mixture grew ever more granitic, scaling a towering climax before quietly thinning out as the chorus returned, softly intoning Lowell Mason’s Bethany (“Nearer my God to Thee,” an Ives favorite) over floating chimes and piano (the latter suavely delivered by Eric Huebner) as the entire enterprise faded into eternity.

As if the evening didn’t have enough excitement, Joshua Bell was on hand for one of his specialties, Bernstein’s Serenade, a violin concerto in all but name. Written three years before West Side Story, the comparisons are inevitable, with many of the show’s musical motifs finding their precursors in the violin role, as well as in the orchestration. Bell’s sweetly rhapsodic tone was matched by vivid contributions from the ensemble.

The generous evening began with Prospero’s Rooms by Christopher Rouse, whose inspiration was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” For those unfamiliar with the story, a nutshell: Poe’s main character, Prospero, decides to protect friends from a plague by inviting them to his castle—where needless to say, things end badly. In the opening bars Rouse portrays the ominous mood using tuba, double bass and bassoon, and as anxiety rises, angry slashing chords appear. Later, just when the opening tension seems to return, the orchestra leaps up again with monstrously loud, complex splashes—and in Gilbert’s hands, all shaped with the same lucid elegance and detail that characterized the Ives. It’s an impressive new piece.


Bruce Hodges