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Charles Ives: Total Immersion

This was a once-in-a-lifetime event; all four Charles Ives symphonies in a single night.

On the last night of a very hectic New York research trip, I was lucky enough to attend the Charles Ives “Total Immersion” concert, featuring Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, in a marathon evening which tackled nothing less than the performance of all four of Charles Ives’ symphonies, a taxing assignment for any orchestral group, but particular in the case of the justly famous Fourth Symphony, which is so complex that it requires two conductors, a huge orchestra, and a complete choral group to bring the work to life.

As you can see in the video above, the Fourth combines so many musical themes and such a wide array of instrumentation that any presentation of the work is daunting; it also comes with the considerable difficulty of containing, in several of its movements, two time signatures running simultaneously at two different tempos, which is why the second conductor is so necessary. I was staying in a hotel right around the corner from Carnegie Hall, and noticed a poster for the evening when I first arrived, at the astounding price of only $25 a ticket for any seat in the house.

Obtaining two tickets in the dress circle early Monday morning the week of the concert, I wondered all week long whether or not I would have the stamina to last through the entire evening, which started at 7:30 and didn’t conclude until nearly 11PM, especially since I had to get up the next morning at 5AM to catch a flight home. At the last minute, I decided that whatever the hardship in lack of sleep, this was an evening not to be missed, and I am deeply, deeply happy that I made that decision.

Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony were in top form, and the packed house knew it from the first downbeat; here was an ensemble that brought Ives’ often difficult music to life, and an amazing opportunity to track Ives’ development as a composer from the rather traditional First Symphony — which nevertheless boasts a spectacular First Movement (breaking concert hall protocol, the audience interrupted the orchestra after the movement was complete for a lengthy round of enthusiastic applause, rather than waiting for the entire piece to conclude). The Second was darker and more experimental, while the Third — which astoundingly won the Pulitzer Prize — was the briefest and least impressive, and then came, as one of my seatmates put it, “the main event.”

The Ives Fourth has been one of my favorite pieces of music since I can remember — indeed, I scored an entire film of mine, The DC 5 Memorial Film (1969) to the Fourth Movement in its entirety — and Skatkin’s interpretation of this intense, difficult, and ultimately transcendent piece of music was absolutely faultless. I was very pleased when I read James R. Oestreich’s review in The New York Times to find that he, too, was impressed by the evening; as he wrote, “the high point came on Friday evening with Detroit’s audacious presentation of an ‘Ives Immersion’: all four of Charles Ives’s numbered symphonies in chronological order.

Obvious in retrospect (though not likely to be repeated often, given its strenuous demands on performers and listeners alike), the program made for an extraordinary journey, from the relatively conventional sensibility of a prodigious student composer in the First Symphony to the unfettered one of an indomitable master in the Fourth . . .

Taken together, the four symphonies could almost be read as individual movements of a gigantic whole, so natural and compelling was the flow. After that First Symphony — first movement, as it were — the Second came as a sort of scherzo, gamboling through old folk and hymn tunes, with ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean’ as anchor. The Third Symphony, relatively restrained and more focused in its borrowing, seemed a calming slow movement before the all-out radicalization of the Fourth.

Mr. Slatkin preceded his performance of the Fourth Symphony with a brief, brilliant demonstration of the work’s complexities. He had the orchestra play a four-measure mashup of tunes and rhythms from the second movement, then had the various sections play individual layers. And what should appear but ‘Turkey in the Straw’ in the violins, scarcely to be heard behind the blaring trumpets and under the accumulated weight of other instruments when everything was put back together. In similar fashion, Mr. Slatkin showed why a second conductor (Teddy Abrams) was needed in parts of the second and fourth movements, dismantling, then remantling the conflicting meters.”

All in all, a brilliant evening, and another, much needed reminder of how essential the arts are in today’s society.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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