National Orchestra Institute Chamber Orchestra @ Elise & Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD - Saturday, June 16, 2007
James Ross, conductor
Jon Spelman, narrator
Symphony No. 4, op. 60, B-flat major by Ludwig Van Beethoven
Decoration Day (from New England Holidays) by Charles Ives
Eine Alpensinfonie, op. 64 by Richard Strauss
I've always imagined the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 as being a bit of a music box composition. One can wind it up and it moves under its own momentum. Under the baton of James Ross I can now appreciate just how much effort it takes to keep the dynamics under control as those familiar themes churn. He did a great job with a well thought out program of music. The juxtaposition of Beethoven and Ives in the first half made for an exceptional presentation of two giants separated by just a single century. And with performances like these one can expect more opportunities to hear their music in concert halls in the years ahead.
Decoration Day was moving in ways I hadn't anticipated, even for an Ives' work. Jon Spelman's narrative contribution to this performance was well within the spirit of the piece and added a contemporary dimension to the overall substance and subject of this work. Before the music started, Spelman read Ives' original postface to the score, which is a colorful description of the childhood Decoration Day observances of Danbury, Connecticut that Ives reproduces in sound. Ives depicts parades and respectful memorials to the sacrifices made by fallen Civil War soldiers not yet forgotten. After allowing the music to set the tone, Spelman then worked in spoken descriptions by soldiers fighting in modern day Mesopotamia and the anguished accounts of loss written by their loved ones.
Decoration Day - the holiday - has since become Memorial Day. A paid holiday without even an echo of the observations Ives described in words and music. The tradition of proud service and self sacrifice is starkly different to what it was at the time of Charles Ives' childhood. And yet so many who practiced a tradition of avoidance have since ordered others to serve. Even as these lame duck chicken hawks stand at hollow photo ops every Memorial Day, the substance of real loss and real sacrifice is the same as it was a hundred years ago. In the foolishness of invading another country under false pretenses and thoughtlessly asking others to make the sacrifices they were unwilling to make in their own day the need for the substance of a true Decoration Day grows.
The post-intermission half of the evening belonged to Strauss' epic tone poem, Eine Alpensinfonie. I'm rarely a fan of late-romatic program music. But this one works. The sweeping depictions of the Swiss Alps rendered in orchestral colors is convincing and succeeds because of the quality of the orchestration. The addition of the organ through the "storm" sequence was a particularly nice touch. I'd like to hear this one again.