CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★

America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot”. It’s a cliché now but was a shiny new metaphor when British author Israel Zangwill coined it in 1908. America was never just an ethnic melting pot but also a musical one. Nowhere more so than in the music of Charles Ives where hymns, college football songs, folk tunes and patriotic anthems creatively collide head-on. Its eccentric richness includes avant-garde innovations – bitonality, tone clusters, twelve-tone rows – all arrived at independently and used not theoretically and reverentially but with a puckish sense of fun. Using a Mahler-sized orchestra the CBSO, under Ilan Volkov, fully embraced the cranky genius of his ‘Three Places in New England’ where each segment is a musical memory-scape. In the first the large string section, all whispers and susurrations, conjured up a misty landscape from which gradually emerged a slowly plodding march, Ives’ homage to the first black regiment of the Union Army in the civil war. The third is also a landscape with the gently flowing Housatonic river and a distant half-remembered hymn tune emerging and reaching a massive climax before dying away. The second section is an Ivesian tour-de-force as he stages his bandmaster father’s penchant for utilizing two bands marching to different tunes in different keys. It was a joyful riot with the CBSO’s brass, percussion and wind sections creating what I can only describe as a euphonious cacophony.

In 1924 George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for piano and orchestra was the pioneering fusion of jazz and classical forms. From the sinuous opening clarinet glissando – Oliver Janes channelling his inner Benny Goodman – to the whooshing final crescendo this was a bristling high energy performance from the CBSO. The Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, also a composer whose music combines classical and popular styles, was an ideal choice as soloist. Sometimes the seams and stitches of Gershwin’s piece show in the stylistic transitions but not here. Goodyear was brilliant in the rhapsody’s expansive romantic moments and in the aggressive percussive passages with his crisply articulated attack. It was a memorable climax to the concert.

The two works in between Ives and Gershwin were a disappointment. Frank Zappa’s ‘Bob in Dacron and Sad Jane’ is a ballet score and perhaps in its original form – a satire on male sexual desire with nude dancers – it might have worked. As a stand-alone score it was musically jejune, repetitive, and its huge orchestral forces and banks of percussion seemed there just to disguise the paucity of its ideas. George E. Lewis’s ‘Memex’ – the name derived from a 1950s computer prototype – at least pursued its sound-world with consistency, an edgy metallic sci-fi landscape with minatory basses, sinister brass interjections and dabs of percussion, but ran out of steam before its 17 minute duration.

Norman Stinchcombe

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