How much of our identity is a reflection of where we were born or where we live or where we choose to be? Charles Ives and Antonín Dvořák certainly knew a thing or two about the importance of location. Bound up with our recollections of place is often a sense of loss, for what once was belongs to time alone.

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Ryan Bancroft
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In his musical triptych Three Places in New England Ives explores the significance of setting and reminiscence. Ryan Bancroft and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales relished those softer tonal colours which stress the inwardness present in the two outer pieces. The first focuses on a monument in Boston to the only regiment of black soldiers that fought and died in the American Civil War, termed by the composer his “Black March”. Muffled drums, violas echoing plantation songs and solo contributions from horn, trumpet and cello, with only the piano dictating the underlying rhythmic pulse, underlined the pain of memory recall. In the third piece, where Ives gets as close as possible to a transcendental view of nature centred around the Housatonic River, Bancroft again clarified the density of the chromaticism while highlighting the instrumental colour. There was a haunting cor anglais solo set against throbbing strings, the harp imitating church bells, and individual sounds contributed to an awareness of the entire cosmos, from a deep growling trombone to the angelic celesta. What was slightly underplayed, especially in the middle piece redolent with recollections of military pageant from the composer’s childhood, was the wildness and craziness of Ives’ conception. Even in the multi-layering of Sousa-like marching bands and jazz rhythms it seemed just a tad too civilised. 

The evening had started with the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ Dance Foldings, given in the presence of the composer. The title takes its inspiration from the process of making proteins by linking together amino acids to form a linear chain. The composer had provided a helpful graphic in the programme-book instancing the rows of “foldings” in the 13-minute piece, with instructions such as “like big band jazz meets Stravinsky and “an ascent in fizz”. By far the most intriguing reference was “To be performed with dancers when feasible”. I suspect the visual element might well have held my attention more than the purely aural one.

Which cannot be said of Bancroft’s reading of the “New World” Symphony. Given with the exposition repeat in the first movement, this was an absorbing and sensitively shaped realisation of the score. This conductor is a very physical presence on the podium. Conducting without a baton, he transfers waves of energy through lithe and muscular arms that scoop and mould the air, hands often urging and beseeching. Yet while allowing the brass their moments of glory at climactic moments – the horns rang out triumphantly at the start of the final movement – it was his handling of the Largo which was quite remarkably moving. This is after all a symphony in the minor key which ends very ambivalently – Bancroft held on to the final wind chord tantalisingly – and is more a reflection of the homesickness he felt for his native Bohemia than an attempt to meld Native American and Black American elements into his own music. This was one of those occasions when reduced numbers in the orchestra mattered little. The many hushed moments with dynamics pared back daringly, almost on the borderline of silence, the strings whispering their heartfelt message, in and out of the shadows, were fine testament to Bancroft’s fastidious direction of a movement imbued with sadness and poignancy.