Ives 4th Symphony

Inside the implacable walls of the Barbican Centre last night , it was mayhem backstage, during the interval of the BBC Symphony/BBC Singers concert. While vast numbers of brass players drifted by warming up vigorously, and understandably (after 90 minutes of a cappella singing) spaced-out BBC Singers dropped in randomly for a chat, composer Gabriel Jackson and I were attempting to hold a live interval discussion on Radio 3. Presenter Petroc Trelawny tried to head people off with the Radio 3 version of ‘OI YOU, GEDDOUT’ but even with headphones we couldn’t hear a thing. The blessed spirit of Charles Ives had taken over London’s concrete castle.

Out front for the Ives 4th Symphony, things were just as noisy. Conductor Andrew Litton is a great advocate for this piece, but no-one can ever ‘balance’ it in the normal way we understand that word orchestrally. You watch the sub-group of violins walk offstage to join their harpist colleague in some celestial music which you know is there but can’t really hear; likewise the percussion ensemble doggedly following the separate metre beaten by the third conductor in the last movement. Most blissful last night was to see the celesta being intensely played amidst great wafts of brass, strings and percussion. As John Adams says in his programme note to his own My Father Knew Charles Ives, also played last night: “[Ives’ music] has always been a model for me, even though I have to candidly admit that many, if not most, Ives compositions present frustrating formal and technical problems that I cannot always resolve, even in repeated listenings”.

And yet, everyone I spoke to last night agreed that a performance of this wonderful, heartfelt symphony is an unmissable occasion. I have heard nothing more touching for a long time than the BBC Singers’ (deliberately) reticent entry with the hymn ‘Watchman, tell us of the night’; and I wish I could time-travel back to the end of the third movement last night and once more hear the beautiful Handel-influenced trombone solo played with particular nobility. ‘Classical music’ has many brilliant orchestral technicians (John Adams of course is one) but there’s only one Charles Ives. What a superbly mad way to celebrate the 90th birthday this week of the BBC Singers (whose foundation in 1924 predates the partial world premiere of Ives’ 4th Symphony by three years.)

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

© Judith Weir, 2020