The Unanswered Question Satisfied Us TwiceSaturday, April 18, 2009
In 1972 I took my Mexico City high school class to Bellas Artes the birthday cake edifice that houses many cultural events of the city like opera and the symphony. I took them to see a special concert that featured, The Unanswered Question (1906) a not often played composition by American composer and life insurance guru, Charles Ives (1874-1954). I had been listening to Ives in the 60s. His music was virtually unlistenable to me but the more I played his recordings the more familiar the chaotic dissonances seemed to me. The beauty of The Unanswered Question, a 6 minute long composition, is a haunting trumpet solo that is all melancholy. My Mexico City class was curious as to why this composition featured two conductors. The main conductor directed the orchestra and the first violinist directed the string section. It seemed to be exquisite organized chaos.
Like English amateur gardeners, historians, archeologists and explorers of the 19th century, Ives felt it was anathema to try to make money from what he liked to do best which was to compose music with his own personal signature. So he started his own life insurance company and created innovative ways of selling life insurance packages. His method made him a millionaire many times over and his techniques are still an insurance Bible today.
Not bothering to please people with his music, Ives defended his polyrhythms, clashing harmonies and dissonances. He had zero tolerance for the wimps and mollycoddles who shuddered, or worse, hissed, at new music. He was famous for standing up at concerts and bellowing at such offenders, “Stand up and take your dissonance like a man.”
To me Ives is like a Champagne sherbet used by the French to cleanse the palate between different courses. If I have been listening to overly sweet music, Ives clears my ears just fine. And I must admit that after a while his music can even seem melodic in certain parts.
It is for the above reasons that my friend Graham Walker (he is up for any music that is challenging) and I went to the Turning Point Ensemble’s Living Toys: Thomas Adès/Charles Ives concert at the Telus Studio Theatre at the
Graham Walker was familiar with the Telus Studio Theatre as he and the firm he works for, Karo Design, created the signage for the whole Chan Centre. But neither of us had been to the venue for a concert. This was a rewarding revelation. Turning Point Ensemble violinist Marc Destrubé remarked to me, “This place reminds me of one of those tiny opera houses in Italy that may have burned down and only the structure remains.” That pretty well describes the shape of the little theatre with its excellent acoustics. You can either sit on the main floor in a tight semi-circle or do the same in three levels or tiers.
Both Walker and I loved the experience. Besides Ives there was the English composer Thomas Adès (1971) with his composition Living Toys about a young boy who dreams about being a bull fighter and an astronaut and then imagines his own heroic funeral. The piece had lots of noise like castanets, the sounds of bulls and bullfighting music and finally the sounds of the muffled drums of a funeral cortège. Watching the musicians (an unusual contrabassoon played by Ingrid Chan, a bass clarinet played by Caroline Gauthier, David Owen, English horn, and a pocket trumpet (it looked like a toy!) played by Marcus Goddard.
But we were all there to listen to that Unanswered Question. Goddard played the trumpet from up in the rafters and the band was divided into a string section in one corner and a woodwind section in another. We were not disappointed in the performance. It emphasized Simon Jenkin’s column I had read in the Guardian on Friday. There is not way that his Ives performance could have been as appreciated and enjoyed either in a downloaded recording or on YouTube. The last piece of he evening was Ives’ Three Places In New England. The piece as performed last night was a world premiere as each one of its three movements was arranged for a the smaller Turning Point Ensemble by Marcus Goddard, Michael Bushnell and Owen Underhill.
We were most entertained, but not as blown away as by local composer Stefan Smulovitz’s - the still unanswered question - complete with that wonderful solo trumpet and with many extra surprises. These surprises involved solo musicians spread around the tiers of the theatre. We had Marc Destrubé behind us and from our vantage point we could see virtuoso clarinetist François Houle. On the floor, trombonist Jeremy Berkman played into a special microphone and the reverberated sound was piped in through the sound system of the theatre. This was our favourite performance of the evening and it left us with a happy feeling that indeed Vancouver is lots of fun if you turn off the TV and venture out.
I also reflected that the Turning Point Ensemble within six months has given us Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet For The End Of Time and Erik Satie’s Relâche and now all that Ives. At the same time this was the year that we heard the complete Brandenburg Concertos with Richard Eggar’s Academy of Ancient Music brought to Vancouver by the shrewd folks at Early Music Vancouver.
In the pictures here you see first, composer Stefan Smulovitz, then four Turning Point Ensemble musicians, from left to right, Peggy Lee, cello, Jane Hays (she pounded her piano with humour in Ives’ Three Page Sonata), François Houle, clarinet, and Marc Destrubé, violin. In the last picture you have gentle (even with Ives) Turning Point Ensemble conductor Owen Underhill being inspired by Ballet BC dancer Lauri Stallings.
As we drove home I pondered on the idea that 103 years have passed since Ives composed The Unanswered Question. How can something that sounds so avant garde be that old? The answer is most simple. I am old!