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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Variations on ‘America’  (trans. William E. Rhoads) [6:24]
Overture and March ‘1776’  (trans. James B. Sinclair) [2:55]
They are there! (trans. James B. Sinclair) [2:29] Old Home Days Suite (selected and arranged by Jonathan Elkus)
I. Waltz [1:30]
II. The Opera House and Old Home Day [1:55]
III. The Collection [2:14]
IV. Slow March [1:14]
V. London Bridge Is Fallen Down! [1:07]
March Intercollegiate (ed. Keith Brion)  [3:32]
Fugue in C minor (trans. James B. Sinclair) [6:31]
March: ‘Omega Lambda Chi’ (edited and arranged by Keith Brion) [3:02]
Variations on ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ (edited and arranged by Keith Brion) [4:15]
A Son of a Gambolier (trans. Jonathan Elkus) [3:50]
Postlude in F major (trans. Kenneth Singleton) [4:24]
‘Country Band’ March (trans. James B. Sinclair) [4:20]
Decoration Day (trans. Jonathan Elkus) [8:15]
Charlie Rutlage (trans. James B. Sinclair) [2:36]
The Circus Band (trans. Jonathan Elkus) [2:44]
Runaway Horse on Main Street (reconstructed and edited by James B. Sinclair) [1:16]
March No. 6 with ‘Here's to Good Old Yale’ (freely adapted for the U.S. Marine Band by Jonathan Elkus) [2:52]
‘The Alcotts’ (trans. for U.S. Marine Band by Jonathan Elkus) [5:56]
‘The President’s Own’ United States Marine Band/Colonel Timothy W. Foley
rec. 2-6 June 2003, Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall, Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria, Virginia, USA

Ives grew up with military music – his father led the Danbury Cornet Band – so it’s hardly surprising that bands figure so prominently in his œuvre. What distinguishes him from his compatriot John Philip Sousa, who wrote almost exclusively in this genre, is his Puck-like nature, delighting in musical mischief and general high jinks. One soon learns to expect the unexpected in Ives’s music, whether it’s a reworked hymn tune, popular ballad or mix of the two; and that’s before one considers the polytonal and polyrhythmic elements of his more ambitious works.

Given that Ives is a musical maverick one might wonder how much of his idiosyncratic style survives the process of transcription and arrangement. Variations on ‘America’ is a case in point; it is played here in a transcription by William E. Rhoads, itself based on William Schuman’s orchestration of E. Power Biggs’s edition of Ives’s variations for organ, S.140. And while ‘The President’s Own’ U.S. Marine Band is clearly a well-drilled ensemble one might also speculate whether the meticulous spit-and-polish approach is well suited to this repertoire.

Ives’s teenage composition Variations on ‘Americais a ‘signature’ tune if ever there was one. It is also something of a calling card for Colonel Foley and his band, whose playing is polished but perhaps too unyielding. And compared with the flamboyant Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops (see review) the Naxos sound is certainly analytical but rather dry. Only at the 10th track, the expansive Fugue in C, does one get anything of the visceral, big band sound that this music surely demands.

Indeed, one longs for the impact of a Telarc-style bass drum in Ives’s Overture and March ‘1776’, the only completed part of a projected opera based on his uncle Lyman Brewster’s verse play Major John Andre. The quiet opening hardly prepares one for the rhythmic complexities that follow – another Ivesian signature – but the piece would certainly benefit from a more unbuttoned performance than it gets here.

They are there! also exists in a cracking orchestral and choral version superbly realised by David Zinman and his Baltimore forces (Decca 476 1537). The band plays it with commendable élan, but one really does misses the massed voices that give weight and thrust to this piece. That said this transcription by James B. Sinclair gets a spirited performance nonetheless.

The Old Home Days Suite for Band is one of those eclectic Ivesian works that draws on several musical traditions. The Waltz, which quotes a popular tune of the day, has a gentle charm, while The Opera House and Old Home Day finds Ives in a more boisterous mood. The President’s Own are perhaps less comfortable with this display of high spirits than with the quiet dignity of The Collection, a setting of George Kingsley’s hymn tune Tappan. It has a remarkable organ-like sonority, marvellously captured by the well-blended brass. But Puck is lurking in the wings and makes a fleeting appearance in the riotous London Bridge is Fallen Down! It’s so short it’s a case of blink and you’ll miss it, but what one really misses here is a greater sense of spontaneity in the music making.

The Fugue in C is altogether more ambitious. Based on Lowell Mason’s Missionary Hymn (‘From Greenland’s icy mountains’) it is a four-part fugue whose introduction bears an uncanny resemblance to the plainchant-like opening of Gustav Holst’s Hymn of Jesus (1917). Colonel Foley and his bandsmen build the music to an undeniably powerful climax, though again one might wish for a warmer, more expansive recording to capture the sheer impact of a big band playing en masse.

Ives clearly loved student japery, and nowhere is that clearer than in his March: Omega Lambda Chi, based on Sousa’s The Liberty Bell. It’s a piece of sophomoric silliness and thankfully the bandsmen loosen up a little, giving the music some much-needed swagger in the process.

Just when one begins to think the parade will never end we have something a bit different with Keith Brion’s arrangement of Variations on ‘Jerusalem the Golden’. It has a sextet of older, small-bore brass instruments alternating with a full modern concert band in a dialogue that makes for a welcome change of mood and tempo after all those (slightly manic) quicksteps. That said it’s a rather dry piece that only really catches fire in the magisterial climaxes.

The bucolic Country Band march quotes Sousa and parodies the efforts of enthusiastic but inept marching bands, with late entries and key clashes. It’s a witty piece that really needs to be a little less disciplined than it is here. Not surprisingly the more serious  (and serious minded) Decoration Day, transcribed from the second movement of Ives’s New England Holidays symphony, plays to the band’s strengths. It seems much more orchestral in the breadth of its opening and at more than eight minutes it is one of the more substantial pieces on the disc. It certainly captures the mood and scale of the orchestral original, even if it lacks some of its instrumental subtleties and nuances. If one wants to hear the entire symphony superbly played Zinman disc mentioned above is an excellent choice.

In his highly detailed and informative booklet notes Jonathan Elkus makes the point that while Sousa wrote his music for America, Ives wrote his music about America. There is little that Ives the magpie didn’t bring back to his nest and that includes ragtime in his setting of the endearing bunkhouse ballad Charlie Rutlage. The horsy theme continues with Runaway Horse on Main Street, this time with the added twist of unexpected patterns of rhythm and pitch. This is a glimpse of late Ives that we also hear in ‘The Alcotts’, from his 1940-47 revision of the Concord Sonata (1920). It has the harmonic and rhythmic strangeness one recognises in his later works and the band acquits itself rather well, especially in the more serene hymn-like passages. In some ways it’s a case of leaving the best ‘til last, with the massed brass and percussion thrilling in the big climaxes.

As so often with Ives he ends ‘The Alcotts’ on an ambiguous note, which is probably a good metaphor for this disc as a whole. There is no doubt this band passes muster – the playing is very polished – but somehow it’s all too sedate and controlled. Perhaps one needs a more unruly beast between the shafts and a driver willing to loosen the reins a little more. What a wild ride that would be!

Dan Morgan




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