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Five Festivals for the Charles Ives Sesquicentenary


The National Endowment for the Humanities today announced a $400,000 grant to resume “Music Unwound,” a national consortium of orchestras and universities, begun in 2010, that explores topics in American music. I serve as director.

Music Unwound disseminates a template I have long espoused: thematic, cross-disciplinary symphonic concerts linked to schools. I believe it represents the future – and that the sooner we come to it, the sooner we can fortify an arts species today embattled: the American orchestra.

Three Music Unwound themes are now in play: “The Souls of Black Folk” (showcasing William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony), “New World Encounters” (about jazz abroad), and “Charles Ives’ America.” The participating institutions are the Brevard Music Festival (lead partner), the Jacobs School of Music at the University of Indiana/Bloomington, the Chicago Sinfonietta (partnering Illinois State University), the South Dakota Symphony (partnering two universities), the Blair School of Music (Vanderbilt University), and The Orchestra Now (Bard Conservatory/College).

Five of the nine Music Unwound festivals will be multi-event Ives celebrations targeting the Charles Ives Sesquicentenary in 2024. As I have often written: this is a crucial moment for the American symphonic community, if we are ever to secure a “usable past.” The core participants include the Ives scholar Peter Burkholder, the baritone William Sharp, and the historian Allen Guelzo. The NEH Music Unwound application puts it this way:

“This project creates a fresh approach to an iconic American widely regarded as America’s supreme concert composer, yet little-performed because his music retains an esoteric taint. In part, this results from its belated discovery (ca. 1940-1960, long after Ives had ceased composing) by modernists who cherished complexity. Today, in post-modern times, the opportunity is ripe to rediscover Ives as a turn-of-the- century Connecticut Yankee rooted in Transcendentalism and Progressivism — a product (however idiosyncratic) of his own time and place. Ives’s vivid personality, and a plethora of memorable writings (essays and letters), reinforce this opportunity to better acquaint American audiences with the Ives idiom — to penetrate its assaultive exterior and connect to its heart and soul. The MU project creates a permanent set of tools — scripts and visual tracks — that orchestras and presenters can use to nudge Ives into his rightful place in the mainstream repertoire. . . .

“Ives is a quintessential musical Progressive, zealous in his faith in democracy, the common man, and the former slave. No less than Mark Twain, he pioneered in fostering an American idiom boldly appropriating vernacular expression (for Twain, Huck Finn’s dialect; for Ives, quotidian New England strains). Both were self-reliant New World creators. Both empathetically tackled issues of race. The Twain/Ives relationship is a sub-theme of “Ives’s America.”

“Part two of the central symphonic program is a contextualized performance of Ives’s Second Symphony. It furnishes an ideal introduction to the composer, readily accessible as a Germanic Romantic symphony. At the same time, Ives is already rambunctiously American. As Peter Burkholder (who helped to create “Charles Ives’s America”) writes in his seminal Ives study All Made of Tunes, Ives here achieves a distinctive voice “by using American material, and by emphasizing allusion and quotation…. Borrowed material appears on almost every page…to create a symphony that is suffused with the character of American melody.” Via the parlor and salon, Ives identified with hymns and minstrel tunes; via the organ loft, he identified with Bach; via his father and his Yale composition professor Horatio Parker, he identified with Beethoven and Brahms. That all of these influences intermingle in the Second Symphony, that all are equally audible and equally privileged, creates a musical kaleidoscope more multifarious than any by Mahler. Ives’s egalitarian ethos, and the ethos of uplift, are equally served.

“With its myriad source tunes, Ives’s Second is a prime candidate for contextualization — and the Music Unwound performances are directly preceded by a performance (baritone/piano) of selected marches, songs, and hymns that Ives integrates, with pertinent commentary — illustrating, for instance, how an inane college song becomes the lyric second subject of movement two, and how the “Civil War” finale celebrates the freeing of enslaved Americans. It bears stressing that most of the tunes Ives uses are no longer familiar.

“Part one of the symphonic program features Ives’ Three Places in New England, the first of which is a “death march” commemorating Colonel Robert Shaw’s heroic Black Civil War regiment, as famously memorialized by the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. This is an example of an important Ives composition that no new listener could possibly “read” without some help.”

No dates yet — stay tuned.

P.S. — My warmest congratulations to Jason Posnock, one of the nation’s premier artistic administrators, who was just named incoming President of the wonderful Brevard Music Festival. And best wishes to Mark Weinstein, the outgoing President, who raised the fesitval’s profile and greatly expanded its resources.

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