New World Symphony takes on Ives' Concord

02.23.09
Jeremy Denk
Miami Herald

The New World Symphony's intensive Ives weekend concluded with a program that showcased the pioneering American composer in all his anarchic, icon-smashing glory through his epic Concord Piano Sonata, heard not once but twice -- in the original piano version and in Henry Brant's orchestration.

Spanning four movements and almost 50 minutes, the Concord hails from Ives' favored strain of American Transcendentalism, with each section inspired by a specific writer. Emerson, the massive 16-minute opening movement, is a dense monolith with much craggy grandeur amid its Beethoven quotations and profusion of surging notes. Hawthorne, surprisingly, is a fantastical scherzo with plenty of in jokes, and The Alcotts bestows a homespun, Stephen Foster-like, domestic simplicity.

Thoreau ends the work with a quiet, searching slow movement, a solo flute conveying a touch of the peaceful nature of Walden Pond. As with so many Ives compositions, the final cadence is unresolved, and the philosophical quest continues.

Tackling this work is a daunting task, but pianist Jeremy Denk served up a staggering tour de force performance Sunday night at the Lincoln Theatre. The pianist possesses a steel-fingered technique and blazed through the sections of knuckle-busting bravura, bringing great clarity to Ives' most knotty and dissonant contrapuntal thickets.

Denk also showed supreme sensitivity in the more introspective moments and had the sense of the discursive work's architecture, letting the Emerson movement's long arc span unfold and bringing great tenderness to The Alcotts. Thoreau made a fitting culmination, bringing the thematic development full circle, as Denk's performance ended with the right hushed, searching expression.

Music lovers may differ on the place of Ives' Concord Sonata in the Romantic piano repertory, but Denk's extraordinary advocacy had many in the audience convinced we were hearing a true masterpiece.

One can go a long time without hearing a performance of the Concord Sonata, let alone two performances, so kudos to Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World for giving us Henry Brant's orchestrated version after intermission. It was interesting to hear -- once.

Brant, who died in 2008, spent years on his retooling of the sonata as A Concord Symphony. However faithful and scrupulous he may have been, his adaptation, scored for huge orchestra, is, to put it charitably, not a success.

Ives' dense counterpoint and fusillade of notes comes across in Brant's interpretation as raucous and wildly overblown, veering from a kind of low-gear Mahler to deafening cacophony, the music acceptable on a keyboard miles over the top when pounded out by full symphonic forces.

Even Tilson Thomas couldn't make a case for this unkempt leviathan, and the souped-up treatment he gave it only made Brant's cochlea-damaging orchestration seem even more empty. Almost no one could fault the New World pianist on stage who had her fingers in her ears for much of the performance.