Charles Ives by Detroit: a review

A view from the dress circle
A view from the dress circle

This is my brief and belated review of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s all-Ives program at Carnegie Hall last week.

I found their performance of symphonies 1-4 cheerful, engaging, and quite ambitious. Perhaps a little too ambitious, as the string instruments had trouble making the sharper turns, particularly in the 1st symphony. But that may have just been jitters, for they performed the 4th and most difficult symphony of the set beautifully. I also appreciated conductor Leonard Slatkin’s commentary on the 4th prior to the performance. He illuminated its wit and complexity for the many Ives novices in the audience (including myself). Although the 4th is not the composer’s most clamorous piece, it can sound chaotic to new audiences, with its abrupt transitions, ghostly refrains, and eerie off-stage drumming. Mr. Slatkin encouraged us not to struggle so much to make sense of the components, but rather to take it as a whole. It was certainly a good reminder. As Ives said, “Maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be transcendental language in the most extravagant sense.”

Charles Ives
Charles Ives

I did not, however, appreciate historian (or Ives-ian, as she called herself) Vivian Perlis’s protracted lecture between the 1st and 2nd symphonies about Ives, his college life, insurance business, and the lovely time she’s had exploring his life. Good for you, Ms. Perlis, but the only thing that I want to hear after the 1st symphony is the 2nd symphony. The audience didn’t like it either. Many groaned and took out their smartphones when she reached the 10-minute mark of her speech. If anyone wanted to revisit Ives’s biography or endure a detailed historical account of his pieces, it’s right there in the programs. That’s what they’re for.


The crowd was a mix of New Yorkers, tourists, and supporters from Detroit, who waved red scarves in solidarity with their musicians. I found the rambunctious crowd to be a refreshing change from the usual sea of white hairs that usually flood Carnegie Hall (at intermission, a man in a tweed jacket said to a Hispanic couple from Detroit sitting next to him, “I thought the only Ives fans were old white people from New England”).

Thanks, Detroit, for offering up an uplifting Friday night. You can read the New York Times review here.

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