MUSIC: Your Ives questions answered

PIONEER cultures do without art because their needs are basic; but sooner or later they reach a time of societal adolescence when the needs-base rises and sensitivity makes its first awkward, apologetic appearance at the log-cabin door. In America it happened around the turn of this century. And in American music the prime pubertal figure stumbling over that threshold of consciousness was Charles Ives (1874-1954): composer, baseball player, businessman, manufacturer of what he called "manly" dissonances (as opposed to the "pansy" politeness of less robust writing), and in almost every sense the Ernest Hemingway of his art.

Like Hemingway, Ives saw himself as a mediator between the old rugged values and the new sophisticated ones, with a mission to prove that creativity could be as tough as sawing wood. In the process he gave himself over to a now-mythic double-existence, replete with paradox and mystery; and that, presumably, is why the BBC SO borrowed the name of one of his scores, The Unanswered Question, as the title for its Charles Ives festival at the Barbican last weekend. It was the latest in an annual series of modern- composer mini-fests which have acquired an almost mythic status of their own: superbly well-prepared, handsomely presented, and supported with lavish documentation. Through its three-day run of concerts, films, talks and seminars, the Ives weekend was no exception: a magnificent achievement that encompassed three of Ives's four symphonies and a panoramic sample of other works, from early brass-band marches and choral anthems to the celebrated Concord piano sonata, the songs, and big orchestral scores like Three Places in New England.

Andrew Davis was in exuberant overall command; his supporting artists included master musicians like the London Sinfonietta and Stephen Cleobury; and the BBC SO negotiated some of the most fearsomely convoluted writing in modern orchestral repertory with elegant sleights of many hands that made it all seem cotton-pickin' easy. From the requirement in the piece New England Holidays for up to 100 Jew's Harps, you realise that this was a composer with scant regard for practicality and a what-the-hell attitude to the likelihood of his more ambitious works ever reaching performance. Most of them didn't, in his lifetime; and those that did tended to wait 40 or 50 years for their chance.

Such statistics contribute to the received idea of Ives as a semi-crazy maverick who spent his life devising impossible and unplayable music. But the testimony of the BBC SO weekend was clear enough: that Ives was an artist of genius - certainly the first great composer to emerge from the New World - and that his maverick qualities belong in a great tradition of American experiment that extends backwards to Walt Whitman, forwards to John Cage, and transatlantically to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Scholars may argue that Ives backdated his scores to make them seem more forward- looking than they really were. But whatever their exact vintage, Ives remains an innovator of extraordinary prescience, playing with tone rows, poly-rhythms, spatial effects and conflicting sound sources long before any of these techniques established themselves in Europe.

Of them all, the conflicting sound sources, coercively and sometimes brutally overlaid in the manner of the marching bands he encountered in his childhood, are the most immediately identifiable Ivesian fingerprint; and if this Barbican weekend proved nothing else, it was the dedication with which Ives pursued the reconciliation of irreconcilables through his life and work. A hugely successful insurance executive as well as a radical composer, his music persistently - and rather relentlessly - interweaves the small-town vernacular of homely all-American melodies with epic transcendental musings on the meaning of existence. And nowhere is the force of that paradox more sharply felt than in the small scale of his songs - beautifully represented in the weekend by a joint recital by two singers as American as apple pie, Thomas Hampson and Dawn Upshaw. It was also a joy to hear the immaculate pianism of the accompanist Craig Rutenberg, who conspicuously rose to the occasions when Ives - ever the democrat - offers the pianist centre-stage.

As always with these Barbican composer profiles, though, the ultimate Unanswered Question was whether there is enough diversity of method and material in the composer to sustain a weekend of nothing but his music; and if you forced an answer from me on that I'd have to say: probably not. His dualities are fascinating but his preoccupations are too fixed.

Another fascinating example of duality was the double-life of Kurt Weill: spent half in Weimar Germany, decanting low art into high in socially conscious collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, and half in stage-struck Manhattan, decanting high art into low for Broadway musicals. His critics would say he sold out to American commercialism. But one remarkable example of a carry-through from Brecht to Broadway was Love Life, a musical written with Alan J Lerner in 1948 but which subsequently vanished from the stage. It had never had a pro- fessional staging in Britain until Opera North's new production, by Caroline Gawn, opened in Leeds on Thursday.

Love Life is about a marriage that lasts 150 years and ends, unsurprisingly after all that time, in divorce. In the fantasy manner of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, the married couple pass through the15 decades as though it were the most natural thing in the world; but as they do, the decline of their relationship follows what Lerner and Weill show as a decline in American values, with each scene prefaced by a vaudeville sketch that underlines the point.

This is what makes Love Life such a radical piece of work: a missing link in the history of American musical theatre which defines the moment when the tone of the genre turned from light to dark. Broadway in the Forties was all chauvinistic optimism, in thrall to an unshakeable belief that the spirit of America could redeem the world and propel it towards ever greater good. Love Life declared the opposite - and with an innovative conceptual (as opposed to plot-driven) structure that fed straight into the hands of Sondheim and Bernstein.

But having plundered Love Life for ideas, Sondheim (in Follies and Company) and Bernstein (in Trouble in Tahiti) surpassed it. And that's the problem. Love Life is replete with moves and materials we've now seen better done elsewhere. What's more, its music doesn't match the inspiration of its words. There is a dearth of deathless songs; and you can understand why Lerner recycled some of his texts (notably the song "I Remember It Well") into later scores. The inevitable conclusion is that Love Life is not a great work: merely the cause for greatness in others.

All this gives Opera North a hard task, and the company - already blooded in musicals with a very successful Showboat a few years ago - has a good try. But Broadway song-and-dance style doesn't come so easy to conservatoire- trained opera singers, and the few that can cross over are vastly outnumbered by those who can't. I'm not really convinced by the cast - except for the gloriously versatile Geoffrey Dolton who isn't the star but ought to be - or by the production, which is inventive (cleverly designed by Charles Edwards) and funny but too steeped in the wry, Max Wall-ish humour of Richard Jones to be quite right for the piece. But then Love Life is a complicated show and was never intended to be done in the cruel opera- house conditions of immediate exposure after just a dress rehearsal and (in this case) a single preview. It needs a quiet off-Broadway run to settle down; and although Leeds is as off-Broadway as you can get, that's not what I mean. See it, but don't rush.

'Love Life': Opera North (0113 245 9351), continues Tues & Wed.

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