Rvw: Ives, Musgrave and Strauss at CSO

10 years ago, I drove all the way across Illinois only to be late to the CSO by 5 minutes. Alas. And so, I had to watch through the portals as John Adams conducted Ives' 3 Places in New England. At the time, I didn't know what I was missing.

Last night, I finally got to correct history by hearing it at the CSO under the direction of Susanna Mälkki. Like The Unanswered Question that opened the program, 3 Places is so much more impressive in person than on recording. With so many layers, especially the raucous Putnam's Camp, the depth and complexity can only be heard, let alone appreciated, in person.

Indeed, that Place, in particular, was maybe the most cacophonic thing I've heard at the CSO, outdoing all of the 20th Century's most avant garde composers. Ives in 1914, not beholden to a career in composition, was far ahead of his time when he completed the Places.

Less far ahead of his time was Richard Strauss, whose Also Sprach Zarathustra concluded the program. Containing one of the most recognizable openings in music, the piece follows with 30-some minutes of music, depicting 8 chapters of Nietzsche's philosophical work of the same name. As such, he depicts the Übermensch in his rising above of the trappings of society, a fine example of Teutonic Teleology.

Not much less gifted of a composer, but a good deal behind the time, Thea Musgrave's Autumn Sonata: A Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra rounded out the program. The piece was written in 1994 but uses a sound world that sounds contemporaneous with the Strauss, albeit rather more Russian, using the octatonic scale. It's unclear who invented the octatonic scale, but many attribute its popularity to Rimsky-Korsakov, who passed it onto Stravinsky and Debussy, then picked up by Messiaen. It's been around the block a few times.

That being said, there was a nod to the Spectralist movement in the opening as the orchestra recreates the timbre of the bass clarinet from which it first enters. And then, at the end, there is an epilogue in which she quotes and sends up Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. A pretty obvious and committed quotation, she embellishes it with a background radiation of discordant tones, like the walls of reality were cracking and another world was seeping in.

Which brings up what connects all these pieces together: ironic (or semi-ironic) quotations. Ives' 3 Places throws together bits and pieces of American march melodies; Strauss quotes the Dies Irae to depict the "Christian herd morality" and then a Viennese waltz to show decadent hedonism; and Musgrave's Beethoven quotation.

The only completely un-ironic piece on the program was Ives' Unanswered Question, which, after Beethoven's 9th may be one of music's most earnest, un-self-conscious pieces.

Overall, a great program: Highly Recommended. The Ives pieces are relatively rare to see on a program but so immensely interesting and important. The Strauss is more common but receives great treatment by the orchestra. And the Musgrave? Yeah, sure, I'd hear it again. (What glowing praise!)

Filed under: CSO, review

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