An Ives Evening to Treasure

United StatesUnited States Ives: Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Gilbert Kalish (piano), Edward Schultz (flute), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 21.10.2014 (BJ)

Ives:  Fourteen Songs:
Songs My Mother Taught Me
The See’r
Like a Sick Eagle
Memories A and B
The Indians
Down East
Two Little Flowers
The Cage
Tom Sails Away
Ann Street
The Housatonic At Stockbridge
The Circus Band
Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860

Two of America’s greatest inventors joined forces for this evening of superb song and sonata performances. The music was by that wildly original composer Charles Ives. And it was performed under the benign gaze of Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait hangs above the stage in the American Philosophical Society’s hall named for him.

Two of the finest performers of contemporary—and in this case near-contemporary!—music, Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish, were similarly associated on the stage. Applied to the songs of Ives, the great soprano’s art serves as a formidable exegetic tool, her unremitting intensity and intelligence teasing out every last shred of complexity and subtlety that lurks beneath the surface of the simplest and seemingly most banal texts.

The two groups, each of seven songs, that Ms. Upshaw had chosen to sing leaned more toward the contemplative than to the boisterous side of the composer’s expressive tastes. In both modes, however, her mastery was complete. There was ample power of voice, pinpoint accuracy of line, and plenty of humor when the music, as in Ann Street and (with Kalish supplying some lusty whistling) Memories A and B. The singer’s penchant for profoundly thoughtful expression, too, was consistently evident, and it was enhanced at certain points by the tiny gap of time she left between, say, an adjective and the following noun. The device was explicitly indicated by Ives with breath marks in Serenity; it is clearly consonant with his whole expressive approach, and Ms. Upshaw’s application of it in other places had the effect of making the listener think more intently on the meaning of the words.

Mastery was equally evident after intermission, when Gilbert Kalish climbed the pianistic mountain that is the Concord Sonata (of which his fine CD recording seems for some reason to have vanished from the current catalogs). No praise could be too high for the blend of clarity, power, warmth, and sheer emotional intensity he brought to this deeply personal and unceasingly exploratory music, the audience’s appreciation of which was heightened by his lucid explanatory remarks. It was particularly rewarding to hear the concluding movement, Ives’s visionary evocation of his fellow-mystic Thoreau, with the integral flute part handsomely played by Edward Schultz.

Some of the finest of Ives is to be found in his songs and in his piano music. It was a wonderful idea to pair the two genres in this flawlessly performed recital.

Bernard Jacobson

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