Compared with the resources and ready audiences for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and the numerous symphonic ensembles at Yale, Orchestra New England (ONE) comes off as the classical equivalent of a scrappy indie band.
And its main muse, Charles Ives, is the early 20th-century symphonic version of a Lou Reed or a Kanye West, who took familiar formats and themes and mutated them into darker, wilder, weirder and funnier new masterworks.
ONE doesn’t have one regular venue for its performances. An average year will find the orchestra doing its popular Colonial Concert at United Church on the Green, providing a live soundtrack to silent comedy movies in the Co-op High School auditorium and waxing patriotic with its Memorial Day show at the Shubert. In past years, ONE has accompanied opera companies throughout New England, been broadcast on PBS, recorded a bunch of CDs and played a dozen shows in New York City.
The ensemble’s now known for its diversity and its community spirit. But when it first formed 40 years ago this year, ONE banded around a single Connecticut composer. James Sinclair had come to town to help arrange the Charles Ives archives at Yale for a tribute in 1974 marking the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Sinclair decided to pull an ensemble together on short notice, conduct it himself, and present an entire evening of Ives compositions. In a scene that could have come from an old movie, a representative from a major record label saw the show, called the home office at intermission, and jumped onstage at show’s end to offer Sinclair a contract to release the concert as an album.
“So the first concert I ever conducted became an LP!” Sinclair, beaming with gleeful memories, recounted Saturday night at ONE’s “40th Anniversary Birthday Bash” concert at Yale’s Battell Chapel. It was another all-Ives show, the first since the orchestra’s auspicious debut back in ’74. But this time the anniversary was ONE’s.
Besides ONE’s having survived 40 years, Sinclair noted, Saturday’s show was “our 755th concert—that’s an accomplishment too.” He has led the orchestra at every single one of them.
Since he first ventured to New Haven, James Sinclair has only furthered his reputation as one of the world’s leading Charles Ives scholars. He published the definitive Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives in 1999, and serves as executive editor for the Charles Ives Society. Ives, in turn, is now one of the most-played American composers in the orchestral realm, right up there with Copland and Gershwin.
Compared with larger and more settled ensembles, Orchestra New England shows are warm, community shindigs—not exactly informal, but a lot less snooty than other classical affairs. There were lots of animated conversations in the Battell pews. The programs arrived late, and were distributed mid-concert. James Sinclair’s knowledgeable introductions to the dozens of short pieces on the bill came off as amiable, not academic.
The first selection was one of Ives’ famous marches—the same “March No. 2” that began ONE’s inaugural Ives event 40 years ago. Sinclair introduced it Saturday as “nifty,” and so it was, peppy and brassy with march-happy drums and soaring strings and, most refreshingly, a clear melody.
Not many classical marches elicit “woos” from a largely elderly crowd sitting in church pews on a wintry evening. This one did.
The second piece, a fugue from Ive’s fourth symphony, was written to be performed at Center Church on New Haven Green, where the Danbury-born, Yale-educated Ives served as church organist. Inspired by the hymnal refrain “Heaven and nature sing,” the fugue was dark and magisterial, with a low buzz of bass and organ. Battell Chapel was well set up for keyboard-watching Ives fans, with the organ on the right side of the stage and a piano on the left.
“This could have been played in this hall by Ives,” Sinclair said. “In fact, you’re sitting in seats Ives sat in” some 120 years ago. The composer, whose stuff still sounds ahead of its time in the way it reshapes traditional forms and deconstructs them before our very ears, didn’t always get along with his music teachers. Sinclair introduced Ives’ “Fugue in Four Keys on ‘The Shining Shore’” as having been written in opposition to the “conservative” training he was receiving. But rather than being contrary and abrasive, Sinclair suggested, “it turns into something rather pretty.”
Then it was time for “something completely different”—the first of several examples that night of Ives’ outrageous sense of humor. “The Gong on the Hook and Ladder or Firemen’s Parade on Main Street,” written in 1912, was based on Ives’ childhood in Danbury, observing how parades would speed up when they had to march downhill, then slow again when the road flattened. There’s an insane tempo to the thing, which at one point is banged out as if by a blacksmith on an anvil.
Sinclair said “Set for Theatre Orchestra,” which came in three luxurious parts and settled the audience down for some calmer, longer, more sedate music. In Ives’ time, critics and followers “only talked about his quirky experiments because that was the hot thing,” Sinclair explained. The rest of the first half of the concert showed the less quirky side. The tricky “Set for Theatre Orchestra” (which Sinclair acknowledged “is seldom done because it’s so challenging—we can do it, no problem”) was followed by a “Set of Four Songs” separately composed over a period of nearly 20 years.
The “Four Songs” section featured a low-key appearance by the night’s big guest performer, New Age superstar and longtime Ives enthusiast Paul Winter of the Paul Winter Consort. Winter just wandered in and started playing along at the appropriate time. It sounded very much like Paul Winter, yet very much in tune with Ives. Two different natures—it’d be hard to imagine the serene Winter leading a march—yet a natural fit. Winter only stood out from the rest of ONE because he was dressed all in white while everyone else wore black.
The second half of the concert took a trad-folk turn with “Charlie Rutlage,” which Ives took from Alan Lomax’s great anthology of old American folk songs. The ONE concert didn’t have vocalists, just instrumental elements, with song texts presented as liner notes in the program. Ives’ ingenious take on “Charlie Rutlage” starts folky, but soon breaks apart into a maelstrom of squawks and plinks, then falls on a cushion of soft strings, then gets up and finds its melody again. Sinclair seemed positively invigorated after conducting it. “What a great cowboy song!,” he exulted. “It has a real American feel, doesn’t it?”
The quirkiness had returned in full flourish, which led to a wondrous stream of “Incomplete Works and Fragments” co-compiled by Sinclair the Ives scholar and conducted deliriously by Sinclair the Ives fanatic. Titles ranged from “Earth Sound” (shades of Paul Winter!) to “Snow Drifts” to “Sunrise Over East Rock—Amos Sing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” to the title Sinclair said was his personal favorite: “Clement is Sick?!—no dinner.” This set of outtakes and bonus tracks included two bits called “Take-Off No. 7: Mike Donlin—Johnny Evers” and “Take-Off No. 8: Willy Keeler at Bat.” Donlin, Evers and Keeler were turn-of-the-century baseball stars. These take-offs were highlighted by percussionists in ball caps banging bats together for a beat.
ONE’s 40th anniversary show, which could also be seen as its 140th Ives birthday celebration, ended with the night’s most elaborate, layered, imaginative and overwhelming work—which is saying a lot, considering what had come before. It was Ives’ Symphony No. 3: The Camp Meeting. It comes in three parts, breezing cheerily through the community-conscious “Old Folks Gatherin’” and “Children’s Day,” then culminating in the exquisitely calming and reflective “Communion.”
Here’s a recording of “Communion” which ONE released on CD in 2003.
It’s notable that this whole Ives show was light on solos (even from Paul Winter) and heavy on orchestral interactivity. That sense of communal celebration—for a homegrown composer, and especially for a homegrown orchestra that had endured for four decades—was infectious. There was a long standing ovation at the end of “The Camp Meeting.” Such ovations might seem to be common at symphony concerts, but they’re really not, and this was heartfelt, from an audience that was studded with presumably hard-to-please Ives scholars and Yale-based new-music composers.
A lot of Charles Ives music gets played these days by a lot of symphony orchestras. Many of them, consciously or not, push these esoteric sounds into mainstream formats, smoothing over the quirks and bumps and astonishingly creative leaps which made them so avant-garde a century ago. Orchestra New England played a whole evening of Ives the way he ought to be played.
Buoyed by the long standing ovation, the orchestra launched into a bracing encore: Ives “Country Band March,” an extended musical joke devised by a composer whose genius was in turning classical conventions on their head. James Sinclair described it as “a parody of all the things that can go wrong in a small town during a march,” and conducted it into delirous clashing chaos.
This was as grand and raucous and respectful a celebration of a composer that any small orchestra could hope to muster. Let’s not wait another 40 years, ONE—there’s an Ives sesquicentennial and an ONE half-century due in just a decade. Even sooner would be even better. Ives lives!