A rich tenor voice, at once solitary and tragically beautiful, floated through the rafters of Crowell Concert Hall last Saturday night.
The voice belonged to Gary Harger, who was accompanied by pianist and Professor of Music Neely Bruce as well as mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Saunders and baritone David Barron, as part of a production called “The Complete Songs of Charles Ives.”
Bruce began playing Ives’ songs in the late sixties with Barron, his then-officemate. Together, they began to perform all-Ives programs and recitals of his repertoire, and in 1972 presented the first major performance of Ives songs in Poland at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music.
Bruce continued to perform Ives’ vocal music with other soloists and ensembles, and today draws upon forty-five years of experience with this repertoire.
In addition to reflecting Bruce’s love of Ives’ music, the production also served as a tribute to Ives himself. Born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874, Charles Ives pursued one of the most extraordinary musical careers in American history. As a classical composer he sought a highly personalized musical expression that included such elements as bi-tonal forms, polyrhythms, and quotation, all radical and innovative techniques for the time period. Ives received much of his inspiration from transcendentalist philosophy as well as his father, the primary creative influence on his style.
Imparting all of this background information to his audience between songs, Bruce accompanied three different vocalists on piano, sailing smoothly through a varied selection of Ives’ compositions.
The songs in the concert’s first section were sung entirely by Harger and accompanied by Bruce. Among others, it included a song entitled “I Traveled Among Unknown Men,” in which Ives put the words of a famous William Wordsworth poem to music. For “In the Alley” and “Slugging a Vampire,” however, Ives arranged both words and melody. Harger captured the mood of each piece with his dynamic, theatrical presence, appropriately matching his character with the feeling of the song.
Mezzo-soprano Saunders radically shifted the ambience of the performance in the second section. Her clear, dazzling voice caressed the notes in a selection of lullaby- like songs whose subjects centered around evening and children.
“O’er the mountain towards the west/ As the children go to rest/ Faintly comes a sound/ A song of nature hovers round/ Till the beauty of the night/ Sleep thee well till morning light,” were among the lyrics to “Berceuse,” which washed a peaceful feeling over everyone present that evening.
Many felt that the highlight of the show, however, was baritone David Barron’s vocal performance.
“Barron had a unique personality about his voice,” said Alex Israel ’09. “While the soprano was good, I felt her voice was a bit too overwhelming for the nature of the songs. Barron’s voice was the easiest to listen to.”
His first selection, entitled “Flag Song,” showcased Barron’s rich, solid, and powerful baritone range, and was reminiscent of a sing-along in a sunny Fourth of July parade.
Another of his songs, “William Will,” willed the audience to laugh out loud with its silly refrain. Originally written as a campaign song for the Republican Party in 1896, it read: “So hurrah for Will McKinley and his Bill!/ And stand for Honest Money, William will!/ So hurrah for Will McKinley, he who made the tariff bill,/ And be ruler of this Nation, William, William, William, William,/ And be ruler of this Nation William will!”
In a stirring piano solo, Bruce played the third movement of another Ives piece, “The Alcotts.” Although the piece began slowly and softly, Bruce ended it in a series of mesmerizing chords and powerful progressions.
As a finale, all three vocalists reappeared on stage to sing “A Christmas Carol” together, one of Ives’ original compositions.
Viewers left the theater with the powerful impression of Ives’ music in their memories, and a little Christmas in their hearts.