Concert Reviews

An Endurance Test Successfully Passed: The Ives Vocal Marathon at Wesleyan University

The Ives Vocal Marathon at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (Jan. 29 – Feb. 1) was so named to advertise its ambition and athleticism: five musicians performed the complete solo vocal works of Charles Ives across six concerts in a four-day “Festival Presentation.” The Marathon aimed for completeness—two hundred and one performances of one hundred and eighty-five songs, plus variants. Participating athletes included Neely Bruce, the Marathon’s pianist and music director, and four charismatic vocalists: baritone David Barron, tenor Gary Harger, mezzo soprano Elizabeth Saunders, and soprano Johanna Arnold. These five had been performing the songs together over a three-year span, refining the final festival program through—in Bruce’s words—“a rather agonizing process” of determining which variants required inclusion. This was an Ives intensive for an eager audience, featuring sophisticated interpretations by five tireless and devoted musicians.

Their love of each song was clear not only from their musical dedication but also from their dramatic flair: all four singers have theatrical backgrounds, and the Marathon’s finest performances rendered songs as musical monodramas. Barron provided a forceful close to the fifth concert with a one-two punch of “The New River” and “Swimmers”; an agile and coquettish Harger delivered the most memorable of the team’s nine variants of “Romanzo (di Central Park)”; Arnold’s set of “reverent” works in Concert Three brought intense focus to bear on elusive songs like “Soliloquy” and “Mists.” Many of the highlights came from the formidable Ms. Saunders, including stunning performances of “On Judges Walk” and “Far From My Heavenly Home.” Assisting musicians numbered in the dozens, all enthusiastic and professional: pianist Kim Patterson deserves particular mention, not least for his mesmerizing solo performance of the “Three-Page Sonata.” Events rounding off the Marathon program included a keynote address by Kyle Gann, a pre-concert talk from Helen Boatwright, a post-concert round-table with the performers, and four scholarly panels; attendees were also encouraged join the choir of South Church for an all-Ives service on Sunday morning.

I was delighted by every event in the festival I was able to see, but I had a small number of reservations about the event’s organization. (I should note that I am an alumnus of Wesleyan’s music department and a former student of Professor Bruce.) The process by which works were grouped together was weighted heavily towards thematic affinities; while this is a tried-and-true approach to concert programming, surely there could have been at least one set of songs related by some musical criterion. Why not a set of songs with polytonal elements, or for that matter a set of predominantly diatonic songs? At times the program notes hinted teasingly at new connections uncovered by the performers over their years of study; but if those connections were accounted for in programming, the audience wasn’t notified. In a way this was a surprisingly conservative choice for a Wesleyan event, as was the grouping of scholarly panels along disciplinary lines—composers with composers, musicologists with musicologists. Why not “mix it up”? Who wouldn’t want to see Anthony Braxton discuss Ives with J. Peter Burkholder?

But again, this is more a musicological wish list than a litany of complaints. Everybody won the Ives Vocal Marathon: it was an endurance test successfully passed, and a canon successfully expanded. In a giddy and informal pre-concert talk on Sunday night—the programs had been delivered to the wrong venue—Bruce discussed the Marathon with the audience. One attendee suggested Wesleyan had one-upped Yale, always a plus; another mentioned the Guinness Book of World Records. Once the programs arrived these eager listeners were treated to a grand finale: “Songs of Peace and War,” featuring show-stoppers like “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” “Majority,” and “He Is There!” They were being rewarded for their perseverance, and also for their dedication: the concert overlapped with the Super Bowl.


No comments for “An Endurance Test Successfully Passed: The Ives Vocal Marathon at Wesleyan University”

Post a comment

Zeitschichten on Twitter