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The Spirit of Charles Ives Resurrected

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Aug 12th, 2018

Cast of The Unanswered Question with conductor Yuga Cohler on right

The concluding concert for the annual week-long Charles Ives Festival held every year in his native town, Danbury, CT, featured a performance of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which is the main reason I attended, yet there was so much more that I was delightedly surprised. The Artistic Director, Paul Frucht, is a resourceful Juilliard graduate and has been able to use the Julliard network to attract young Juilliard graduates as well as have them perform interesting contemporary works.

The theme of the concert was A New Sincerity: From Darkness to Light. Frucht explained that a new search for sincerity had emerged with the new millennium—a sincerity devoid of cynicism and irony. While I cast a jaundiced eye on the former, I am partial to irony, which appears to have been invented by Homer and has had a rather good run in all the arts ever since.

The concert opened with Maurice Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro which featured haloed harping by Emily Levin from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Daniel Giacobbe, who is completing his M.A. at Julliard, delivered gorgeous clarinet tone. This Romantic piece by Ravel was an historical exhibit A for the ambiance of Romantic sincerity.

Leaping to the present Nina C. Young, this year’s Artist in Residence, offered Spero Lucem. This turned out to be John Cage redux. This was a mood piece with attractive sounds: string plucked piano or seemingly random key struck, unusual squeaks from violin, violoncello, or viola—a sense of time slowing down to the deeper levels of meditation.

Paul Frucht’s composition Rhapsody, inspired by Ravel, freighted dissonance, harmony, angular melody, tension, and the trajectory of an arc going and arriving somewhere as the instruments emitted peculiar modern sounds in a conversation that each instrument was listening to. There was tension and exploration. I wanted to hear more from him and hear this marvelous piece again. There was an especially strong viola line (which I take to be the sign of an excellent composer). Frucht is an immense talent that bears watching and listening. At 29 he is a mature composer who has an international future.

After intermission, Kindling by Charles Peck (b. 1988) rocked the stage. His piece began with booming pop pedal drum percussion by Frucht, followed by a classical violin furiously played by Avi Nagin. The contest was on: was this to be a classical or pop number? Not an easy question, since there were so many more instruments on stage that had not yet checked in. The piano wanted to do a John Cage thing. The clarinet wanted to do jazz; the flute could swing either way, jazz or classical. The violoncello preferred blues. The piano appeared to be suddenly amenable to jazz, but the violoncello preferred classical after all. If the clarinet could not play jazz, it spent the rest of the piece mocking everyone. (I was glad that irony was not dead for this piece was bathed in irony.) The percussion was never going to give up. Instruments changed their mind yet this work somehow jelled in the mayhem and irony. Every instrument was kindling for the fire of creativity. What we ended up with was innovative funk—it was amusing, original, and yes funny. Witty comic relief is always welcome. Like Frucht’s complex Rhapsody, this piece has legs aplenty.

Shadows Lengthen by Chris Rogerson (b. 1988) provided a pleasant mood-meditation on sunset laden with nostalgia for the passing moments of time. The fingers of Emily Levin’s harp massaged the mood ever so delicately. Toward a Brilliant Light by Jonathan Cziner (b. 1991) delivered a robust chamber piece that engaged instruments in a dialogue with some tension and direction. Here was another young composer with promise.

Yuga Cohler then conducted the Ridgefield Symphony in Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question and he was successful in not answering the question with his direction of controlled dynamics in a new arrangement (for limited orchestra) by the multi-talented Paul Frucht. Cohler managed to evoke that special sense of mystery encoded in Ives’ iconic work of irony. We can cherish both sincerity and irony, but cynicism really has no place in art—cynicism (loving dogs rather than people) belongs to a cranky branch of philosophy. I’m not a fan of Plato, yet in Plato’s Republic he (jokingly) exiles cynics to the borders of the ideal state to discourage immigrants.

This concert was held at The Ridgefield Playhouse just south of Danbury. Here is a link to their website. If you love good music, I suggest that you mark your calendar for this event next year.