You’ve good to hand it to ol’ Charlie Ives. Nearly seventy years since his death and a century since the composition of his most important works, he is still making the “rollos” and “lilies” (the composer’s favorite pejoratives for listeners who willfully close their ears to the wider world of living music) squirm in their seats. Audiences have become desensitized to the power of images, but the din of Columbia, Gem of the Ocean played against Dixie and Marching Through Georgia were enough for some of the more delicate souls among the Disney Hall audience last week to grope their way towards the exits.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Chris Wahlberg
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Chris Wahlberg

The fact that Ives’ music can still elicit that sort of naked response is a testament to the vitality of his art, a quality that was front and center during Michael Tilson Thomas’ guest stint last Friday with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

The second half of the program was devoted to the cycle posthumously known as Ives’ New England Holidays Symphony (more a loose collection of tone poems à la Smetana’s vlast than a true “symphony”): four loving and joyous evocations of the composer’s childhood in post-bellum Connecticut, each sounding like a Henry Darger collage erupting into life. Prefaced by an eloquent spoken introduction by the conductor, followed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s rendition of a number of the folk songs and patriotic potboilers woven into these scores, Tilson Thomas demonstrated his profound love for this body of work that has become a specialty of his.

Despite the frosty reception that met his music all those decades ago (and which it occasionally still meets with), Ives never pursued his radically original idiom solely for the sake of itself. In a certain regard, he was a realist, carefully creating works that captured the essence of his recollections as accurately as possible. It’s music that invites the audience to step into the composer’s aural memories in psychic communion. Tilson Thomas deftly illuminated these contrasting facets of the composer: the defiant Yankee maverick and the wistful daydreamer ruminating over the passing of time. These two wrestled with each other – beauty and raucous merrymaking – as the music unspooled lithely with unhurried tempi and admirably pellucid textures. Winds blossomed forth; the brass rang powerful and true, but never overwhelming the rest of the orchestra. The close of Thanksgiving Day – an unlikely juxtaposition of Scriabin and church sermon – beamed to an ecstatic close.

Tchaikovsky inaugurated the program by way of his Rococo Variations and deathless Romeo and Juliet. The latter was given a suave performance, if somewhat on the reserved side. Not the white-hot proclamations of love from the young Romeo here, but rather the sepia-tinted recollections of an aged Casanova over a long vanished love. Gautier Capuçon, guest soloist, dispatched his role in the Rococo Variations with superb poise, control, and rich tone.

Considering that Tchaikovsky exercised a not inconsiderable influence over the young Ives, his music was a fitting start to the program. Perhaps a few listeners might have been aware that Tchaikovsky, too, found his music was hard-going for many a musician and critic before it became a repertoire pillar. Could Ives in some not too distant future also become a comfortable staple of the concert hall? I have a feeling that somewhere out there the great man is spitting in contempt at the idea.

****1