American Mavericks

Charles Ives: the man, the mystery

Charles Ives is the original American Maverick. After graduating from Yale with a D+ grade point average and taking a job with an insurance firm in New York, Ives plotted to open his own firm—at which he proved adept. His firm, Ives & Myrick, was very successful, and Ives even devised life insurance strategies that were the precursor to modern-day estate planning. Not bad for the father of American modernism.

Ives is best known for his use of polytonality, which is when he takes different tunes, each with their own harmonic center pitch, and layers them on top of each other. He uses a similar technique with rhythm, layering different beat patterns over top of each other. One of the greatest examples of these techniques is Ives’ Concord sonata for piano, which explores some of the figureheads of the transcendentalist movement: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May and Branson Alcott. Just before publishing the sonata, Ives released a collection of prose titled Essays before a Sonata, in which he describes the work as the “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.” But…I’m talking about a piano sonata. How is the San Francisco Symphony performing it on the American Mavericks festival?

Enter Henry Brant.

Henry Brant (left) and MTT

Henry Brant was a composer who spent many years of his life orchestrating Ives’ sonata into the work being performed on Thursday and Friday, March 8 & 9 in San Francisco (and March 21 in Chicago, March 24 in Ann Arbor & March 28 at Carnegie Hall) by MTT and the SFS, whose last performances of the work were recorded and released on SFSMedia last year.

Ives A Concord Symphony CD Cover

Listen to and comment on the recording here, and listen to a podcast about the Ives Sonata and Brant’s orchestration here.

The SFS and MTT perform A Concord Symphony Thursday and Friday nights, March 8 & 9 to open the American Mavericks concerts here in San Francisco. Come early at 6:30 to see a short play presented by actor David Prather and pianist Peter Grunberg—they will take excerpts from Ives’ Concord Sonata and Essays before a Sonata and weave them together to delve into the expressive intention of the work, followed by an audience Q&A. This “Inside the Mavericks” experience is free to all ticketholders and will take place before the March 24 performance in Ann Arbor as well.