The American composer Charles Ives, eclectic and far ahead of his time, still reigns as an icon of the iconoclastic a half-century after his death. On Thursday in “Charles Ives: A Life in Music,” the PostClassical Ensemble made beautiful sense of his eclecticism, tracing the life of the staunch New England transcendentalist from early childhood onward.
Conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez and produced by Joseph Horowitz, who also wrote the script, the adventurous program at Strathmore alternated between performances of Ives’s music and readings from letters, newspaper reviews and literature of his day. What could have been a heterogeneous sprinkling of compositions was instead an enlightening, meaningful journey through the composer’s life: The narration by Carolyn Goelzer and Floyd King was delivered with clarity and emotion, tying together all the elements in this biographical and musical tale.
For the opening work, “The Unanswered Question,” which was repeated at the end of the performance, the chamber orchestra was divided between the strings onstage, a flute quartet on a balcony up front and a solo trumpet (Chris Gekker) in the back of the hall. The strings’ slow tonal harmonies were constantly interrupted — the trumpet’s ever-unresolved “question” motive and the atonally raucous flutes intruding on the orchestral calm. Yet it would be hard to rival the glowing, mystical serenity of Thursday’s performance.
With Jeremy Denk at the piano, baritone William Sharp brought ravishing nuances of timbre coupled with total control and telling dramatic gestures to Ives’s songs. Sharp’s most poignant, finely shaded singing came with settings of “Feldeinsamkeit,” by Brahms and Ives’s version in German romantic style; “At the River,” the composer’s simple version of an old American folk hymn; and “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” orchestrated by the American composer John Adams. Ever the supreme accompanist, Denk responded to every facet of Sharp’s singing.
Pianist Mayron Tsong offered the third movement, “The Alcotts,” of Ives’s ruminative Concord Sonata with skill and deep perception. And she never missed any quote from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — there are many Beethoven references in Ives’s music. Ben Bokor’s baritone sax solos were vibrant and eloquent, as in “Over the Pavements,” in which the orchestra is divided into seemingly unsynchronized groups playing in different keys and rhythms — glorious cacophony.
Porter is a freelance writer.