STORY WRITTEN BY JOE BARRON/21st Century Medai
One hundred years ago, the composer Charles Ives was running a New York insurance agency and scribbling his Second Piano Sonata in his free time. Like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” both of which recently passed their centenary marks, Ives’ “Concord Sonata” — named for the Massachusetts town that was home to his beloved Emerson and Thoreau — belongs to the first generation of what is still spoken of as “modern music,” and, despite its age, it can make the work of much younger composers sound old-fashioned.
“The ‘Concord’ still remains as contemporary as anything I’ve ever done,” the pianist Gilbert Kalish said Sept. 6, speaking by phone from New York City. “It has its own language and is unique and original.”
Kalish will perform the work at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia Oct. 21. He will also accompany the soprano Dawn Upshaw in a generous selection of Ives’ songs, which are so diverse in style and technique that a musician as perceptive as Aaron Copland confessed to feeling lost when he first looked into them.
“To me there is no question this is the greatest American composer of songs, ever,” Kalish said. “Most of the song repertory from past century can be very beautiful, but it tends not to be very original or contemporary. Ives said the hell with all that. He used every area of American music.”
Kalish’s dedication to the composer goes back at least 40 years. In the 1960s, when he was still in his 20s, he and the violinist Paul Zukofsky performed all four of the Ives’ violin sonatas at a church in Brooklyn. There were about 15 people in the audience, Kalish recalled, but one of them happened to be a representative Folkways Records. The encounter led to a two-disk recording of the sonatas that remains a touchstone.
For several years Zukofsky and Kalish also appeared at an annual concert series at Swarthmore College. Kalish remembers the time as a tremendous learning experience that forced him to learn a lot of unfamiliar music.
“On that series we had a ridiculous number of concerts to play,” he said. “That’s when I first did the ‘Concord.’ I took advantage of that series to learn a large number of works.”
Kalish describes himself as a slow learner, and the “Concord,” which can last anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on a performer’s approach to tempi, required a large commitment in time. Then, just as he was preparing to record it, he decided he ought to listen to the recording by John Kirkpatrick, who had given the sonata its New York premiere in 1939.
“So I listened, and it shocked me, actually,” Kalish said. “It was so different from the way I thought of the piece. I was startled. Actually, I canceled my recording.”
Yet it was Kirkpatrick who also gave Kalish the confidence to continue. Reading over the older pianist’s notes, Kalish came across an anecdote about the time Kirkpatrick tried to play the sonata for the composer. He hadn’t been playing long, Kirkpatrick wrote, when Ives pushed him off the bench, sat down at the keyboard and began to improvise, launching the material into new, unexplored realms. For Charles Ives, there was no such thing as a definitive performance.
“I had a sense of, OK, I’ve done my work,” Kalish said. “I have my concept, and I’m going to record it. There are different versions, and that’s OK. It is whatever it is. I was able to reschedule the recording.”
That recording, on the Nonesuch label, appeared in 1977. At about the same time, Kalish recorded an album of Ives’ songs with the late Jan DeGaetani, and he regards Upshaw in some ways as DeGaetani’s natural successor. Both singers grew up in small towns in the Midwest, he said, and both relate instinctively to Ives’ “Americanness.”
“The music means a great deal to Dawn, as it did to Jan,” Kalish said. “I think she’s a very persuasive performer. She has stage charisma, she has humor, she has very deep pathos … I think Dawn is a phenomenal interpreter of Ives songs.”
Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish perform music of Charles Ives
Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut St., Philadelphia
Tuesday, Oct., 21, at 8 p.m.
Call (215) 569-8080 or check www.pcmsconcerts.org for ticket availability. According www.pcmsconcerts.org the concert is sold out.