This week, Western New York cultural institutions join forces to celebrate the most avant-garde insurance salesman in American history.
The Burchfield Penney Art Gallery, University at Buffalo, and Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries will join the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in exploring the life and music of Charles Ives, who is considered to be America’s first great classical composer.
Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874. His father, a US Army bandleader in the Civil War, was a major influence on both his music and his life, as well as on the musical life of Danbury, which prided itself on being the most musical town in America. He instructed Charles at an early age in piano, organ and drums. He began composing music at age 8, and attended Yale for composition.
In his work, a listener can see how these ordinary beginnings stayed with him and manifested themselves. As a child, he pounded on the piano’s keyboard with his fists. As a mature composer, he pioneered “tone clusters” produced through a not-dissimilar technique. Growing up in Danbury, he would often stand in spots throughout town where he could listen to several musical groups at once, all playing different pieces in different keys and rhythms. A lot of his work brings in polytonality and polyrhythm.
Ives supported himself by selling life insurance, and was quite successful at it, founding his own agency and becoming well-known in his industry. He continued to compose until the mid-1920s, when physical ailments simultaneously ended his insurance career and his composing career. He remained an invalid for the rest of his life, but lived long enough to see his work awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and championed by the likes of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. He died in 1954.
“We have heard from the public a great desire to learn more about classical music, and this festival is another way in which we’ve sought to fulfill that desire,” said JoAnn Falletta, Music Director of the BPO. “Our participation in the “Music Unwound” consortium has inspired our successful Know The Score series, now in its third season. Ives is a composer that may be unfamiliar to many, but it is our hope that this festival will inspire greater interest in his work, and a greater understanding of the role America has played in classical music’s development.”
The featured event of the week-long exploration will be the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Charles Ives: An American Maverick” concert held at Kleinhans Music Hall at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 11 and repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 12. An audiovisual presentation written and produced by Joe Horowitz with video artist Peter Bogdanoff, will complement the music performed, delving into Ives’ life and examining his place in American intellectual heritage.
Horowitz is the director of the Music Unwound consortium, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and dedicated to infusing symphonic concerts with humanities content to lend new vitality and depth to the American concertgoing experience. The Buffalo Philharmonic is one of six orchestras in the country that participate in this program.
Baritone William Sharp, an expert on the music of Ives, will join the orchestra in a program that includes “Variations on America,” “Five Songs,” “The Alcotts” from “A Concord Symphony,” Symphony No. 2, and Ives’ best-known work, “The Unanswered Question.” JoAnn Falletta will conduct, and there will be pre- and post-concert discussions on both days. Tickets for April 11 and 12 are $29 to $67 and available by calling (716) 885-5000 or visiting bpo.org. Students can present their IDs at the box office for $11 tickets.
Other events in the festival:
- Vocal masterclass with William Sharp, 3 p.m. Wednesday, April 8, Baird Hall recital hall, UB North Campus. Free.
- “Mark Twain and Charles Ives: Kindred Mavericks” talk by Joseph Horowitz, noon on Thursday, April 9, Downtown Central library. Free.
- “Ives and Popular Song” recital by William Sharp, accompanied by pianist Alison D’Amato. 8 p.m. Thursday, April 9, in the Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans Music Hall.
- “Ives’ Concord Sonata,” 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 10 at the Burchfield Penney Art Gallery. Buffalo pianist Eric Huebner will perform Ives’ Concord Sonata, with interpolated readings by William Sharp. Nancy Weekly, Head of Collections at Burchfield Penney, will lead a free talk on Burchfield and Thoreau to start the evening. $10 for non-gallery members, $5 for members. Available at burchfieldpenney.org.
- “Space to Space Surface to Surface,” 2 p.m. Saturday, April 11, Burchfield Penney Art Gallery. LehrerDance will turn the gallery into a living art space. The performance was inspired by the story of Charles Ives listening to different marching bands playing simultaneously in his town square, and experiencing the resulting cluster of sounds. Free with museum admission.
- “A Tribute to Charles Burchfield and Charles Ives,” 7:30 p.m. Saturday April 11, Burchfield Penney Art Gallery. Artist Emil Schult, with members of Institute For Electronic Arts at Alfred and BuffFluxus will present a video and sound performance interpreting the songs of Charles Ives. $10 for non-gallery members, $5 for members.
- Harmonia Chamber Singers, 7 p.m., Sunday April 12, Burchfield Penney Art Gallery. Admission is by freewill offering.
- “Ives and Beyond,” performance by Slee Sinfonietta at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 14, University at Buffalo’s Lippes Concert Hall at Slee Hall. Brad Lubman will conduct, and mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley is soloist. Tickets are $15; $10 for seniors. UB students are free. Call (716) 645-2921.