San Francisco Symphony - Ives performance

A San Francisco Symphony Concert Review & Epiphany

You’re walking along. You’re minding your own business. It’s just another day in the day-to-day existence of another human being on planet Earth. Without a sound, as you meander about, a meteorite from some godforsaken corner of some galaxy you’ve never heard of bonks you on the head! I mean, what are the chances, right?!

This is my story from about a week ago, and it’s taken me all this time to process what actually happened. Well, I didn’t get hit by a meteorite, but rather something else altogether unexpected.

When: Last Saturday evening
Where: Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco
What: It all started that afternoon when…

Charles Edward Ives (1913)
Charles Edward Ives (1913)

I called symphony hall and asked for the order of the program: An Evening of American Music. The symphony was scheduled to perform two (Yes, I know. The horror: two!) pieces by the American composer, Charles Ives. I was hoping they would both be in the same half of the program; so, we could skip them! My previous encounters with Ives have just done nothing for me. Rats: his Psalm 90 (1890/1924) began the first half, and his Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting (1912) opened the second half. Frankly, we were attending the concert for the other two pieces.

Once at Davies Hall, we plopped ourselves into our seats oblivious of the fact that the meteorite was on its way.

Charles Ives (left)
Charles Ives (left)

Turns out that the symphony’s music director, Michael Tilson Thomas1, is something of an Ives fanboy. He began by speaking to the packed hall about what we were to experience. Charles Ives, a graduate of Yale (in composition with a “D+” GPA! Hello?!), was a successful insurance agent. Ives’ wife was a close personal friend of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), and their families socialized often.

But most notably, and something I did not know, Ives was an evangelical church music director and organist. (That meteorite was entering the gravitational pull of the Earth.) He experimented on his church choir with his rather experimental compositions, including one of the pieces we were to hear tonight. I was most thankful I was not in his choir.

The Symphony Chorus. Oh, dear god in heaven. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus! No words.

Shockingly to me, Ives’ Psalm 90 was breathtaking, transcendent, ethereal. It sounded nothing like his wretched parade piece I’ve been forced to endure time and again. This was music of and for the gods.

I was smitten! The mountainous tonal textures that gently swelled and receded through the hall were like the transcendental poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) in musical form. The influence of these men was still strongly felt in the northeast during Ives’ (1874 – 1954) time. And, briefly mentioned during the concert, the northeast was experiencing a profound spiritual revival at the same time (historically often called the Second Great Awakening—more on that in a moment).

After a single piece, I had a huge paradigm shift, an about-face, about Charles Ives. The man was musical genius.

Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas

But the meteorite didn’t strike until the beginning of the second half of the concert. Again, MTT began by addressing the hall. In 1946 Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for the piece, written in 1912, we were about to hear. He was a sincere man of faith, and his Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting, was deeply grounded in the music tradition that every church-goer in the northeast at the time would know. This was uniquely American music—church music, American hymnody. Dvorak would have been proud.

Ives took 5 church songs2 and interpreted them to celebrate the powerful, emotive energy of the evangelical revivalist camp meetings sweeping the northeast of his day. People would come from miles around the county and even adjacent counties to what was a huge social and religious gathering that often lasted for up to a week. This was community–getting to see Aunt Harmony Twichell again after almost a year. People came together.

I think that’s a critical point: In the 1800’s evangelical religion was all about bringing people together into community, embracing community.

Before the performance of the symphony, MTT conducted the San Francisco Chorus in singing unison and four-part arrangements of the 5 songs back to back. I was instantly transported back in time to the church of my youth and was smitten by that meteorite. I knew word-for-word 4 of the 5 songs as well as I know, probably better than I know, the back of my hand3. Ives indeed was deeply ingrained in evangelical religion.

I simply don’t know what to say about Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting. I’m at a complete loss. You can just insert every superlative you can imagine and still fall short. I was profoundly moved by the sheer frenetic genius of the composition and its performance. MTT recorded this performance as part of the musical legacy he is leaving the world. I must have that recording! Brilliant performance!

After the shock of being struck by the unexpected meteorite from some remote galaxy somewhere in the far reaches of the universe, I became angry.

Yes, I became very, very angry. Furious!

You see, the historical record is clear. The Great Revival that swept the northeast by way of the evangelical camp meeting Charles so masterfully celebrated in his musical composition was what most scholars describe as the birth of organized liberalism in American protestant faith practice.

Evangelicals, yes, it was the evangelicals that were focused on helping the poor, providing food and shelter for everyone in community, opposing and reducing gun violence (dueling to the death was apparently a big thing back in the day), providing fair wages, insuring safe working conditions, opposing child labor, opposing slavery, creating the public school movement, and on and on. The evangelicals of Charles Ives’ day stood firmly for almost everything the evangelical movement of today, with its unyielding commitment to divisiveness and separating people, is against. The evangelicals of this time were fervent liberal activists running counter to the inhumanity of their existing culture. They actually were the moral voice of their day!

Charles Ives and those of his day would not recognize evangelicalism today: that cesspool of heartlessness, hatred, racism, selfishness, misogyny, homophobia, justified and routine sexual assault, intolerance, greed, pedophilia, entitlement, militarization–to name just a few earmarks of their movement. They would be horrified. I certainly am, and I’ve only witnessed this transformation for the past 60 years.

I’m angry because church-going people allowed thugs to hijack a faith tradition and turn it on its head, making it the exact opposite of its lofty humanitarian goals. And as a result, the nation is suffering a moral vacuum that is being rapidly filled by the Neo-Nazis, the KKK, anti-government crackpots, and all the money the wealthy can throw into the system to insure they keep raping the country and the world at large.

Yes. I’m angry about being struck on the head by this meteorite. It hurts!

And in a time when we need authentic moral leadership more than ever, when invading nations are virtual and no longer constrained to bombing geography, when science can now edit the DNA of a living thing while it lives, when artificial intelligence is invisibly taking control of and making decisions for our lives, when people are the most disconnected and isolated they have ever been while ironically living in the most technologically connected world ever to exist, when policy makers are figuring out what is the least amount of income (UBI) required to keep a human being alive in a world where all work will be done by robots, when our minds are being weaponized against us through our own smartphones, when everyone’s psychological state is profiled in real time and their location constantly tracked–where is moral leadership? I’ll tell you: it’s groping women, it’s raping children, it’s taking away healthcare, it’s taking more of your money and putting it in the bank accounts of the uber-wealthy.

I want my faith practice back from the people who illegitimately stole it for their own greedy profit! I want a faith practice that cares deeply, fervently, and unyieldingly about everybody!

So Dvorak’s The American Flag, Opus 102 (1893) and Gershwin’s An American in Paris (1928) were fantastic. The Dvorak was unusually Wagnerian for a Dvorak work. It’s rarely performed. The Gershwin is always crazy delightful. But the performance that stole the show was Ives’ Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting. I just had no idea. The thing I dreaded most is exactly what moved my soul most deeply.

Utterly unexpected.

A Bit of Research for You

For those people of faith who do not know the actual history of the evangelical movement and assume, incorrectly, it has always been the putrid horror show it has become, I offer these two videos by the Reverend Dr. Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, author, historian and Emmy Award nominee, distinguished visiting professor at Emory University Candler School of Theology. His research on the real impetus behind the rise of the Religious Right is groundbreaking and revelatory4.

The content of both videos is well worth knowing.

Understanding Evangelicalism and the Religious Right – Green Mountain Academy Lectures (52 minutes)

True Origins of the Religious Right – Duke University (35 minutes)

And, finally, here is a link to several of the books Dr. Balmer has written on the history of evangelicalism.

  1. who will retire at the age of 75 in 2020 

  2. Quotations from these then-familiar hymn-tunes:
    • Erie —“What a friend we have in Jesus”
    • Azmon —“O for a thousand tongues to sing”
    • Woodworth —“Just as I am, without one plea”
    • Naomi —“Now from the alter of my heart”
    • Fountain —“There is a fountain filled with blood”  

  3. as we say in the south 

  4. YouTube synopsis