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Gerald Carpenter: Music Academy Festival to Close with Mahler, Ives

James Gaffigan will conduct Saturday's concert in the Granada Theatre

It seems like the Music Academy of the West’s 2012 Summer Festival just got under way a few days ago and now, all of a sudden, we are coming up on the closing event, a concert by the Festival Orchestra conducted this year by James Gaffigan of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Granada Theatre.

Gustav Mahler, with an enviable head of hair, about the time he wrote the First Symphony.
Gustav Mahler, with an enviable head of hair, about the time he wrote the First Symphony.

The program will certainly give the young virtuosos a workout: Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D-Major (sometimes known as “The Titan,” after the novel by Jean-Paul Richter).

Most music lovers — even most of the minority who openly loath his music — concede that Ives (1874-1954) is one of America’s greatest composers. Yet, even now, more than 50 years after his death, he remains a prickly and controversial presence in our concert halls, still more admired in Europe or Asia than in his native land.

Like the poets T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Robert Service, or his own contemporary, the fine composer John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951), Ives was famous for his lucrative, non-musical day job — in his case, as executive of the Hartford Insurance company.

The Three Places in New England — also known as Orchestra Set No. 1, A New England Symphony or Three New England Places — was begun as early as 1903 and the perfectionist composer finally finished tinkering with it in 1929, but most of it was written between 1911 and 1914. Not without a fair bit of eccentricity, the work nevertheless is nowhere near as cranky as Ives was capable of being. It is entirely accessible, even beautiful in long stretches, and contains what one writer has called “the signature traits of his style: layered textures, with multiple, simultaneous melodies, many of which are recognizable hymn and marching tunes; masses of sound, and tone clusters; and sudden, sharp textural contrasts.”

Mahler is the perfect composer for this brilliant young orchestra, for Mahler’s message was ever for the young. The First Symphony was written while Mahler was still pre-occupied with song. He had already composed his great cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer, and was in the midst of setting the songs from the collection Youth’s Magic Horn, and melodies from both these collections found their way into the symphony — and, indeed, into the three following symphonies as well, which (1-4) are now known, collectively, as the “Magic Horn” symphonies.

As a trio in the third movement, in the midst of the infamous “Funeral March in the Manner of Caillot,” we find an extensive quotation of the most beautiful of all his songs, “The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved,” from the Songs of a Wayfarer. The rousing, somewhat Wagnerian finale should send us exultant into the night. After the exquisite “Child’s Vision of Heaven” that closes the Fourth Symphony, Mahler turned his attention away from his early lyricism. His melodies became more symphonic, less dependent upon the vocal line. Some prefer these later works. I am not so sure. Even the Song of the Earth is more of a symphony than a song cycle, for all that it is an unforgettable masterpiece whatever you call it.

Tickets to the Festival Orchestra are $100 (loge box seat), $48, $38 and $10. They can be purchased by phone at 805.969.8787 or online by clicking here. Tickets are also available from the Granada box office at 805.899.2222.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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