A Charles Ives Adventure with the Brooklyn Art Song Society
September 27th, 2011
On a rainy Friday night, audience members filled the Brooklyn Conservatory Recital Hall to hear a performance of music by American composer Charles Ives. The Brooklyn Art Song Society presented the first of a two-part series of works from the Charles Ives songbook. Published in 1922, Ives’ 114 Songsspan 34 years of his work. Each number is relatively short, with original lyrics or lines from a poem set to music. The evening explored tales of American life from the campfire, to the city street, to Central Park and beyond.
The Brooklyn Art Song Society’s artistic director and one of the performers, Michael Brofman, described the breadth of the Ives catalog, “the earlier songs are mostly parlor ditties and student works where he impersonates other composers’ styles and the later works are really modern and atonal.”
Brofman explained the motivation behind organizing the concert, “The Ives songbook works really well because it’s so eclectic and there are so many styles. There’s a real danger when you do a concert all of one composer that it can get monotonous but that will never happens with Ives.”
Ives grew up in Danbury, dubbed “the most musical town in Connecticut,” where his father played music and heavily influenced his son’s future endeavors. Ives went on to study music at Yale, and then chose to go into the insurance business so that his vocation (and income) would not be dependent on his creative pursuits. He writes of the influence of money in his self-published songbook, “Such stimulants, it strikes us, tend to industrialize art rather than develop a spiritual sturdiness…”
Brofman notes, “I love Ives because he exudes this attitude of ‘I’m going to do what I want I frankly don’t give a damn what you think about it.’” Much of that artistic freedom stems from the fact that with his success in the insurance industry, he never needed to rely on an audience or patron and just played the music he wanted to play.
Ives’ remarks in the songbook also reveal the passion and humor he also brings to the keys. He voiced a strong belief in democratic art, specifically that everybody has a capacity for creativity and a drive to express it. He also grants the notion of a song its own autonomy, asking the reader:
If it feels like kicking over an ash can, a poetry’s castle, or the prosodic law, will you stop it? Must it always be a polite triad, a ‘breve gaudium,’ a ribbon to match the voice?…If it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly,–to sing what cannot be sung—to walk in a cave, on all fours,–or to tighten up its girth in blind hope and faith, and try to scale mountains that are not—Who shall stop it! –In short, music a song always be a song!
Described as “a mediation between American and European elements, and between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art,” Ives created songs from American portraits to experimental sounds, with occasional tours through French and Italian lyrics. At times his music conjures Norman Rockwell; at other times, Jasper Johns.
The variety of Ives’s compositions and the diversity of the Brooklyn Art Song Society’s talented performers kept the sound fresh as the program progressed. Some songs sounded like old familiar ballads while modernist tunes with thrashing piano keys felt avant-garde. The mood would even shift within a song from funny quips about childhood crushes and gearing up for a concert to poignant reflections on unrequited love and aging. The performers animated the humor in many of Ives’ songs through playful gestures and nods. The evening’s finale “Son of a Gambolier” included piano, flute and all four singers blowing away on kazoos.
This showcase offers a wonderful way to sample Ives’ diverse catalog. Hear the second half of the songbook at 7:30pm on Tuesday, October 18th at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, or if you want to listen to all 114 songs in one evening, check out the marathon performance on Saturday, January 14th at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn.
Performers: Deborah van Renterghem, soprano; Emily Riggs, soprano, Brandon Snook, tenor; Robert Osborne, bass-baritone; Michael Brofman, piano; Marc Peloquin, piano; Michael Rose, piano; Miori Sugiyama, piano; Martha Cargo; fife; Special Guests: Paul Sperry, tenor; Mary Nessinger, mezzo-soprano.
For more on Charles Ives, visit the Charles Ives Society.
His songbook is available for download here.
His Pulitzer Prize winning composition “Symphony No. 3—The Camp Meeting.”
For more on the Brooklyn Art Song Society, visit the group’s website.