Performing the music of Charles Ives, the Emory University Wind Ensemble instilled a renewed American patriotism into the Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center for Performing Arts audience on Saturday. Ives’ career resonates today, whether through the memory of his diverse accomplishments or rich musical catalog. Shown through the musicians’ frequent intentional mistakes, eccentric rhythms and melodic polytonality, Ives embodied the courageous mindset that wasn’t afraid to ask, “Why not?”
Featuring a large group of clarinet, trumpet, trombone and other instruments, the ensemble opened with Ives’ “Overture and March: ‘1776.’” This piece shifted frequently between calmer melodies and louder moments, keeping the audience on its toes. However, the group’s collective playing sounded somewhat disjointed and out of tune. This musical dissonance was actually highly valued by Ives.
“Every great inspiration is but an experiment,” he said, reflecting the uniqueness of his work.
Ives’ pieces often have polytonality, the use of multiple musical keys simultaneously. Although this causes his music to sometimes sound atonal to the listener, such an approach highlights Ives’ courage to experiment and try new ideas.
Five songs from “Old Home Days Suite” were next performed. All timed around two minutes or less, the inspiration of these pieces ranged from the Main Street march of a village band to a family pet’s funeral. This subject variation exemplifies the variety of topics that Ives was passionate about.
Despite numerous song subjects, however, an underlying sense of Americana pervades throughout his work. “Country Band March” brings to life the sounds of a small-town American band at a holiday festival. This “fictional music” transports the listener to another time and place where memories of past tunes flash through the mind. The ensemble played various short excerpts of “Yankee Doodle,” “Marching Through Georgia” and other popular songs individually before performing the piece collectively. Put together, these short segments meshed into a fun rendition full of energy. Deliberate mistakes, mirroring the talent of an amateur country band, had the audience laughing. Conductor Scott Stewart humorously seemed to want nothing to do with last straying note, throwing it away with a thrust of his arm. A cutout of Ives casually sitting in a chair was placed onstage, smiling like the rest of the crowd.
After an intermission, “Circus Band” was played next. This piece featured a quicker tempo and was primarily tonal, but “wrong” notes were sometimes hit to mimic an amateur band like the previous song. Like the other pieces, “Circus Band”‘s upbeat melodies dripped of nostalgia for simpler American times. An innocence of decades long gone flows through Ives’ music, reminding the listener of the days when the Main Street band was the preferred entertainment.
Throughout the performance, narrator J. Peter Burkholder explained the historical context of Ives’ work as well as the significance of specific parts of songs. Using Burkholder’s direction, the audience knew what mental image to form during “Decoration Day.”
Referencing what is now Memorial Day, the piece conveyed the mood of decorating military gravestones on the holiday. Slow and largely dissonant melodically, this piece occasionally included a light rendition of “Taps” in the background. However, because Memorial Day is ultimately a day of fond remembrance and honor, the song’s tempo and mood suddenly picked up toward the end into a march.
Keeping the audience interested is easier when well-known and relatable songs are performed. “Ives had a way of tossing odd bits of Americana into the European soup-pot,” praised composer Leonard Bernstein, “thus making a whole new symphonic brew out of it” that holds listeners’ interests.
This “brew” included the penultimate piece “Variations on America” which featured numerous alternations of the “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” namesake. The piece is the earliest instance of musical polytonality as the familiar melody is reshaped continuously. However, the ensemble was cohesive enough to keep the strains of the original melody intact so that the audience could follow. Despite being originally written for organ, the ensemble’s performance sounded natural.
Wrapping up the evening was “Finale from Symphony No. 2.” A rousing crescendo of the ensemble ended the evening with a bang. The audience left the Schwartz Center with a new appreciation of Ives’ American music. Because these songs do not follow the strict melodic or rhythmic perfection of other composers, Ives’ music is not for everyone. However, Ives can be lauded for his trailblazing experimentation and refusal to simply adhere to common musical precedents. The Emory Wind Ensemble brought the audience back in time to small-town America. As long as Ives’ music continues to be performed, audiences will continue to gain glimpses into a period far different from today.
– By Chris Ziegler