The title of this post should be sung to the similarly titled Beach Boys song.
Saturday the 14th was the final concert for Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony before they traveled to Carnegie Hall for a series of concerts. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the mezzo-soprano diva of the last decade, was originally slated to sing Mahler songs as part of the program but she canceled with a "gall bladder obstruction."
The last minute replacement for the concert and the tour was Stravinsky's "Petrushka," which I'd heard in a fairly dull performance earlier in the year before the tour to China, so I showed up at intermission.
The second half was a rare performance of Charles Ives' "Holidays" Symphony, four discrete pieces of bizarre programmatic music dedicated to Washington's Birthday, Decoration [Memorial] Day, The Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving respectively. Seeing that this concert was being performed during a five-day period that included Passover, Good Friday and Easter, the programming struck me as unintentionally Secular Humanist Gone Berserk, in a nice way.
The great musical essayist Michael Steinberg had a wonderful piece in the program explaining the music, which he calls an "Ivesian Four Seasons," a perfect description. He continues:
"It is not only what the Danbury, Connecticut bands played -- and Ives's music is always full of references to hymns, marches, dance music, and other sounds from the vernacular -- but their blending and colliding that determined the sound of his compositions. He loved musical collage and gave new meaning to the notion of polyphony. In his scores it is not just the counterpoint of individual musical strands but the coming together of whole different musics. He shocked his listeners by blurring the hallowed line between the cultivated and the popular. He questioned the idea that tempo should be stable and probed the possibility of flexible, evolving speeds. He found his way to polytonality, atonality, polyrhythms, and other devices that, like Leonardo's bicycle and contact lenses and ball bearings, all had to be reinvented by others."
It's interesting that most of those reinventors of Ives' discoveries were West Coasters like Henry Cowell (who Ives treated disgracefully when Cowell was thrown into San Quentin for being a homosexual), Lou Harrison, John Cage and a multitude of other visionaries.
Most of Ives' major pieces weren't even performed until after he died in 1954, including the present edition of the "Holidays" Symphony, and the major reason for that was not their weirdness, astringent New Englandness, or sheer adventurous quality but because the composer himself stopped composing in 1924 and became a rich insurance asshole in New York City instead.
In my fantasy alternate universe, Ives didn't react to his wild small-town messianic bandleader daddy and become a shrewd monster on Wall Street, but instead went to California and protected, nurtured and learned from Henry Cowell, hung out with Charles Seeger (father of Pete) at UC Berkeley, and lived happily and beautifully into his 90's somewhere on the California coast, changing the entire course of musical history while he was at it.
In a sense, that alternate history is being played out through John Adams. The first movement of his recent commission from the San Francisco Symphony, "My Father Knew Charles Ives," is one of the greatest homages to another composer that I've ever heard. (Will somebody please record it, for Christ's sake?) He takes the whole four-bands-walking into the central New England gazebo square polyphony to its wonderful next step, and Adams' father was also a New England bandleader, so there's real connection there.
The difference is that Adams, unlike Ives, moved to California at the right moment in his life and has bridged that New England Transcendantal Inventor/California Hipster Holy Visionary divide quite perfectly. If you live in New York, make sure you go hear the San Francisco Symphony performance, by the way. This orchestra and its conductor know what they're doing with this music, and it really is special.