Detroit Stands Up for Ives, and Stands In for Oregon

05.13.13
Storm Large
The New York Times

By James R. Oestreich

Spring for Music — the annual festival of North American orchestras at Carnegie Hall, created in the main to foster imaginative and ambitious programming — did itself proud over the weekend in the last three concerts of its third season. Leonard Slatkin conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Thursday and Friday, and Christoph Eschenbach led the National Symphony Orchestra on Saturday.

As expected, 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.

In remarks from the stage, Vivian Perlis, a historian of American music, rightly pointed to a Dvorakian character in the First Symphony, begun in 1898; indeed, the English horn solo in the Adagio molto clearly takes its cue from the Largo of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony (1893). Thereafter, Ives became strictly his own man, however widely he may have drawn from musical Americana.

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.

Mr. Slatkin, who became music director of the Detroit Symphony in 2008, said before the festival that he was eager to show “how far the orchestra has come in a very short time,” since its six-month strike in the 2010-11 season. It performed nobly through the long haul of the Ives, and it had been given another chance to strut its stuff in the festival when the Oregon Symphony, unable to cover the costs of travel and lodging, had to cancel its appearance.

Detroit, on Thursday night, adopted half of the whopper of a program for which Oregon had been selected: “The Seven Deadly Sins” of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, with the soprano Storm Large, and “La Valse” by Ravel. But Mr. Slatkin, hewing to a theme of colorful works by composers trying to come to grips with the 20th century, replaced the rest of the program (Narong Prangcharoen’s “Phenomenon,” Schoenberg’s “Accompaniment to a Film Scene” and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony) with pieces by Rachmaninoff, whose music he and the orchestra are now recording for Naxos: the “Capriccio Bohémien” and “Isle of the Dead.”

“Isle of the Dead” ranks — with Mendelssohn’s concert overture “The Hebrides” and Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera “Peter Grimes” — among the great sea pieces, and Mr. Slatkin’s atmospheric reading was especially evocative of surging waves. The death angle enters with variants on the Dies Irae tune from the Roman Catholic Requiem, which fascinated Rachmaninoff through much of his career.

The orchestra shone throughout, but with “The Seven Deadly Sins,” Detroit inherited that show stealer Ms. Large, who is best known for her popsier work with Pink Martini and other bands. She was sensational in a Brecht-Weill experiment of dipping country innocence serially into urban decadence and seeing what comes out. What came out here was personality plus (the tattoo across Ms. Large’s back, for those who couldn’t make it out, read, “Lover”), and her voice came through the subtle miking fetchingly. The other singers — Jorge Garza, Carl Moe, Anton Belov and Richard Zeller — injected character of their own, but though they were also miked, many of their words were lost in a jumble; printed texts would have helped.

The National Symphony program on Saturday, “A Tribute to Slava,” was another beauty. Dedicated to the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, the orchestra’s music director from 1977 to 1994, the concert began with the New York premiere of Rodion Shchedrin’s “Slava, Slava (A Festive Ringing of Bells).” Anyone familiar with the coronation scene of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” will know that “slava,” in addition to being a nickname, means glory in Russian and that bells are the accompaniment of choice.

The program also included Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, which Rostropovich conducted with the National Symphony in 1992 with Yuri Bashmet, the violist for whom it was written, and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which Rostropovich conducted often and recorded twice with the orchestra. This time David Aaron Carpenter was the excellent soloist in the concerto.

Mr. Eschenbach completed his generous tribute to a predecessor with a Shostakovich reading much in the Rostropovich manner. A close friend of the composer’s, Rostropovich insisted that the sense of triumph ostensibly conveyed in the Fifth Symphony’s clamorous ending was actually intended sarcastically, and that he slowed the tempo to make each of the pounding, stabbing A’s seem like the hammering of a nail in a coffin.

Capitalizing on the orchestra’s collective memory of Rostropovich performances, Mr. Eschenbach made this interpretation work, rounding out a well-shaped performance. If he occasionally gave in to a predilection for sheer loudness, it was nothing compared with the volume Rostropovich could produce in Shostakovich.

The orchestra sounded in good shape, with particularly fine work from the woodwinds in the Shostakovich slow movement.