American Originals 

Symphony hosts talented visitor, records Ives

Symphony hosts talented visitor, records Ives

Nashville Symphony w/Navah Perlman

8 p.m. Feb. 4-5

TPAC’s Jackson Hall

For information, call 255-ARTS

This weekend, the Nashville Symphony continues to share its stage with accomplished visiting soloists, while also continuing its ongoing project to record American masterworks for the Naxos label. The soloist for Friday’s and Saturday’s concerts is pianist Navah Perlman, who will play the only completed piano concerto by Robert Schumann (d. 1856).

Both Navah Perlman and her father, violinist Itzhak Perlman, have had to overcome physical obstacles in building their careers. The father as a boy lost the use of his legs to polio; the daughter is battling rheumatoid arthritis. Navah already had a flourishing concert and recital career when she was a student at Brown University in the late ’80s, but the arthritis forced her to stop playing for five years—well past her graduation in 1992. Though she is still not free from the disease, medication allowed her to resume playing in 1994. Since then, she has been drawing strong praise for her performances all over the world. Though physically a petite person, her pianism is robust.

This weekend’s concerto was originally conceived as a single-movement Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, first played by the heavily pregnant Clara Wieck Schumann in 1841. She praised it highly in a diary entry, but her husband could not find a publisher. Accordingly, in 1845, he expanded it into the three-movement Piano Concerto in A Minor. The Concerto retains much of the ”fantasia“ character—allowing for more freedom in thematic variety and structural development than is common in the concerto form. This one is indebted to Beethoven’s ”Emperor“ Concerto—although more lyrical and less aggressive. It should make the young glad to be young, and the not-young feel young.

The Symphony is also to play Schumann’s Overture to Hermann and Dorothea, based on a 1797 Goethe love poem. And along with these quintessentially Romantic pieces, the orchestra will play some very different selections by the American composer Charles Ives. A musical maverick who lived and worked in obscurity most of his life, Ives was born in Connecticut in 1874. He grew up a craggy Yankee Transcendentalist in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His father George was ”the youngest bandmaster in the Union Army,“ counted Emerson as an acquaintance, and went on to become a teacher/bandmaster noted for his musical erudition and quirky genius.

Although music was always Charles Ives’ first love, he did not try to make a living at it. He worked in insurance instead and composed on weekends. It has been said that ”Charlie wrote his father’s music.“ Wherever it came from, the music anticipated many developments later associated with Stravinsky, among others.

One story says that once, on July 4, the young Charlie heard his father’s band playing a march in one key at one end of the town common, and another band playing another march in another key at the other end—and liked what he heard. He began to use polytonality and polyrhythms, along with non-standard combinations of instruments, in audaciously jocular ways. One of his techniques was to quote in his compositions well-known patriotic tunes and hymn tunes, and then treat them playfully.

One item on the Symphony’s playlist, a set of variations on America, turns that banal tune into an audible elixir. But what Ives does is not parodic or sardonic. It is irrepressibly fresh; it’s what Mark Twain might have done if he had been a Yankee and had music been his medium.

Though he composed mostly on weekends and went into de facto retirement in the ’30s, Ives produced a large body of work—including some 200 songs and five symphonies. Belatedly championed by conductor Nicholas Slonimsky and composers Lou Harrison and Leonard Bernstein, Ives was awarded the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 3 and began to gain international renown. Since his death in 1954, that renown has continued to grow.

Now Ives’ prestige, combined with the production and marketing savvy of the Naxos recording label, may help the Nashville Symphony’s reputation to grow. The ensemble has a deal with Naxos to issue five CDs as part the label’s American Classics Series. One aim of the series is to release the music of American composers who are not as well known as they deserve to be. Last fall at TPAC, Naxos recorded the Symphony’s performance of some Howard Hanson music for a forthcoming CD. The label will record the Ives portion of the Symphony’s program this weekend as part of that continuing project.

The Symphony’s involvement in this project is good news in at least two ways. First, it gives the Symphony a good reason to play music it has not customarily programmed. And second, it offers perhaps the best chance yet for the Symphony to reach the ears of discerning listeners all over the globe. And if the Symphony plays Ives as well as it played Hanson earlier, discerning listeners will want to hear these musicians again.

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