With Charles Ives' monumental Universe Symphony, the NSO means to shake the heavens 

The Big Bang

The Big Bang
click to enlarge Nashville Symphony rehearsing with all five conductors. Giancarlo Guerrero (middle), then counter clockwise: Christopher Norton, Kelly Corcoran, Albert-George Schram, and in the bottom right hand corner, Larry Austin.

Courtesy of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra

Nashville Symphony rehearsing with all five conductors. Giancarlo Guerrero (middle), then counter clockwise: Christopher Norton, Kelly Corcoran, Albert-George Schram, and in the bottom right hand corner, Larry Austin.

Among American composers, Charles Ives has achieved near-mythic status. If the dates on his compositions are to be believed, Ives was surely The Great Anticipator of 20th century music. At a time when most American composers were still trying to write polite European-style sonatas, this Connecticut Yankee son of a Civil War bandmaster was delving into atonality, tone clusters and polyrhythms. It's little wonder that much of his music was neither published nor played during his lifetime.

In a show of swaggering ambition, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra has opted not only to perform a selection by Ives in its Carnegie Hall program on May 12, it has selected perhaps the greatest challenge in the composer's repertoire. The NSO and its music director Giancarlo Guerrero will present a realization of Ives' most daunting and far-reaching piece, the Universe Symphony — a work the former high school athlete turned insurance tycoon conceived in 1911, then revisited and revised for the next 40 years. It remained unfinished at his death in 1954.

At Carnegie, the NSO will perform a version of the Universe Symphony that was completed by composer Larry Austin in 1993. Austin spent nearly 20 years reconstructing the piece, deciphering Ives' nearly illegible handwriting while filling in the gaps in the various manuscripts. "Ives left an invitation in his score inviting future composers to try to finish this piece," says Austin, who spoke recently by phone from his home in Denton, Texas. "I decided to take him up on his offer."

The challenges facing Austin were enormous. Ives had envisioned a work of unprecedented scope and complexity. His goal was to evoke in sound the origins of the heavens and the earth. To accomplish this feat, he proposed positioning separate orchestras on different mountaintops. The ensembles were to play simultaneously, each in its own key, tempo and meter. This extraordinary (and wildly impractical) vision anticipated many of Karlheinz Stockhausen's performance innovations by at least 50 years.

Austin's arrangement calls for a huge ensemble consisting of seven small orchestras (or groups) led by five conductors. The first half of the piece, lasting about 16 minutes, consists of what Austin calls the "Life Pulse Prelude," a work of profound rhythmic complexity scored for an ensemble of 20 percussionists. All of these musicians play shifting cycles of music that go in and out of sync every eight seconds.

To keep these players together, Austin had to create a computerized click-track system. The percussionists all play in a different meter and tempo and must wear headphones to listen to the click-tracks. Guerrero will conduct this percussion ensemble along with two "Earth Orchestras," one scored for brass and low winds and the other for cellos and basses.

Four assistant conductors will lead the four "Heavens Orchestras," arranged for violins, violas, high winds and solo percussion. These groups also play in different tempos and meters, hence the need for four different conductors. Austin, NSO associate conductor Kelly Corcoran, NSO resident conductor Albert-George Schram and Belmont University School of Music professor Christopher Norton will conduct the Heavens Orchestras.

Guerrero immediately thought of Austin's realization when he began putting together his proposed program for Carnegie Hall last year. "I was looking for scores that would showcase the NSO's commitment to adventurous American music," Guerrero says. "In that respect, the Universe Symphony seemed to have the Nashville Symphony's name written all over it."

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