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.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit