Charles Ives music will revisit the Berkshires
NEW MARLBOROUGH -- Listen carefully to the music of American composer Charles Ives and what do you hear? Wind blowing through the trees on his honeymoon walk along the Housatonic River; a battlefield soldier's last breath echoed in Taps and patriotic marches; the taxing toil of a cowboy on the range; the innocence of little children.
Like the painter Norman Rockwell, Ives represented both the beauty and the honesty of American life through his creativity. On Saturday, experience his vision when violinist Daniel Stepner, pianist Donald Berman, and mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore perform Ives' music and songs as part of the Music and More concert series.
When Boston-born concert pianist and series director Harold Lewin first clapped eyes on the elegant 1839 white-walled Meeting House a quarter century ago, he thought "this would be a wonderful place for chamber music."
Lewin and his wife had just bought a house nearby, and he was soon performing alongside distinguished musicians he invited to the village.
Following a successful trio of Bach programs, Lewin asked Stepner, for the past 20 years artistic director of the acclaimed Aston Magna concert series, to create this year's tribute, the third time Lewin has programmed Ives, one of his favorite composers, in the series.
Although he is widely known as an early music specialist, Stepner said he has been involved with Ives' music for a long time.
"I was very fortunate as a graduate student to play all the Ives violin sonatas with John Kirkpatrick, who was a close associate of Ives," he explained.
"People think of Ives as a quirky and eccentric composer, and in some sense he certainly is, but there's much more to him than that. He has an incredible range of composition styles and expression, and he writes the most beautiful lyrical art songs, often with atypical text he wrote himself."
Born in Danbury, Conn., Ives spent much of his professional life working for an insurance company in New York City. A prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning composer influenced by his band director father and the transcendentalist movement, he brought ingenuity to both his creative and business careers.
"He was very idealistic about creating a vision of America," Stepner said. "He had a unique style and a great ear and was able to transmute his feelings about transcendentalism and patriotism and 19th-century small town life into music."
Later known as the Dean of American composers, Ives was very experimental as a student at Yale, confounding his professors. By eschewing a full-time career in music, Stepner explained, Ives could avoid performing and writing music "for old ladies of both sexes," as he famously once put it.
He was quite able to write beautiful music, but he also wanted to challenge people, Stepner said.
Pittsfield native and Boston colleague Rentz-Moore "has a real gift for this kind of music," he added; she will sing 11 of Ives' more than 200 songs.
Of three that close the program, "one is the very last piece he wrote, a very poetic, philosophic song called ‘Sunrise,'" Stepner said. "The other two are patriotic barnstormers, very energetic at times."
Berman, a distinguished Ives scholar and Charles Ives Society Treasurer, will perform "Emerson Transcriptions," piano variations on his monumental "Concord Sonata," written in admiration of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"It's not a long piece, but it's in that very ruminative and speculative style," Stepner said.
Berman was Kirkpatrick's last student and has recorded much of the composer's work. He describes the variations as "soaring and improvisatory excursions [that] make up a daring portrait of the philosopher Emerson and experimentalist Ives."
Stepner insists Ives wasn't as iconoclastic, trying to tear down the past, as many think. Instead, he manipulated tonal music and juxtaposed two different kinds one on top of the other -- just as his father would do with the Danbury town band.
Kirkpatrick spent seven years in Europe learning Ives' complex Concord Sonata, Stepner said. When he played it for the composer before his debut New York recital, Ives reportedly told him, "do what you think is right when you have a question, and don't necessarily do the same thing every time you play it."
"And that is a great statement from a composer," Stepner said. "He has confidence enough in his vision that he wants people to take it and make it their own."
If you go ...
What: Music and More presents ‘Shall We Gather at the River?' -- a sampling of Connecticut Yankee composer Charles Ives's rich repertoire of vocal and instrumental works with Deborah Rentz-Moore, mezzo soprano; Donald Berman, piano; and Daniel Stepner, violin
Where: Meeting House, 154 Hartsville-New Marlborough Road, New Marlborough
When: Saturday at 4:30 p.m., pre-concert talk at 3:30 p.m.
A reception follows in the Meeting House Gallery.
Information: (413) 229-2785 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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