When Corbin Johnston assumed the reins as artistic director for the NOVA Chamber Music Series at the start of last season, one of his top priorities was to present a concert devoted to the music of Charles Ives.
"When I took over, Project One for me was doing an Ives program," Johnston said. "I love this music. This is great music by any standard, and NOVA is the venue to do things that you don't have the opportunity to do elsewhere."
Ever since he heard Ives' Fourth Symphony as a student, Johnston has been smitten with his music. And as a professional musician, he laments that Ives' compositions, both chamber and symphonic, aren't performed more frequently. "He is too important to pass on."
Today's NOVA concert, which takes place at 3 p.m. in the auditorium of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, will be an all-Ives affair. Besides a number of his songs and the "Hawthorne" movement from the Piano Sonata No. 2 ("Concord, Mass., 1840-60"), the program will include two of the composer's major works, the String Quartet No. 2 and the Piano Trio.
There is also one other piece, the oddly eclectic "Hallowe'en" for string quartet, piano and bass drum. "Ives wrote tons of little movements," Johnston said. "'Hallowe'en' was intended as the fourth movement of a quartet."
The piece is curious, since Ives notes in the score that a bass drum can play, at the drummer's discretion, when the other instruments have rests. Performing on bass drum will be Johnston. "I'll be making my debut with the bass drum. And since there is no actual part, I can't mess it up," he joked.
Others performing at today's concert are all colleagues of Johnston at the Utah Symphony: Jason Hardink, piano; Joe Evans, David Langr and Kathy Langr, violin; Brant Bayless, viola; and Walter Hamann and Noriko Kishi, cello. Soprano Shawna Gottfredson will also perform.
Ives is one of the great iconoclasts of the 20th century. He followed his ideals and wrote what he believed in, not what was popular or acceptable. He is the first truly great American composer, and the one that later generations of mostly American, but also a smattering of European composers, have looked up to.
In his music, polytonality and polyrhythms run with refreshing abandon, interspersed with snippets of hymns and band tunes. All of it makes Ives' music quintessentially American — a melting pot of ideas, as much as America is a melting pot of nationalities.
Dismissed by critics and musicians in his day, Ives' music has yet to find universal acceptance. "A hundred years later, people are still put off," Hardink said. "That says a lot about what he was doing." And because Ives had a successful career as an insurance executive, he wasn't forced to write music that had mass appeal. "He didn't need to make a living as a composer. He had ideas and didn't see any sense in writing pretty music. He was an individualist."
Johnston added that looking at the dates when the works on today's program were written helps put Ives in perspective. "The earliest one is from the year Brahms died (1897), and the most recent one — the quartet — is from 1915. Timewise, Debussy was his closest contemporary."
Yet there isn't a shred of commonality between Ives and his musical contemporaries (which, besides Debussy, also include Mahler and Richard Strauss). "In that regard, that is what makes this music so extraordinary."
Ives stretches the tolerance level of audiences, Johnston admitted. But he feels confident that the audience at today's concert will be receptive. "NOVA audiences are more open-minded and perceptive, but this concert will show how far they're willing to be stretched."
If you go
What: NOVA Chamber Music Series
Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts auditorium, University of Utah
When: Today, 3 p.m.
How much: General, $15; senior citizens, $12; students, $5