Ingo Metzmacher was about the age that Shunsuke Sato is now when he discovered modern music
And since then, he's become one of the prime movers and shakers in the contemporary music scene in Germany, first as pianist and later as conductor. Ingo Metzmacher's name is closely associated with the rediscovery of Franz Schreker's opera Der ferne Klang and with one of the most important premieres of recent years, that of Hans Werner Henze's Ninth Symphony.
He's been GMD in the city of Hamburg for several years – "GMD" by the way stands for Generalmusikdirektor, and I use the acronym intentionally to indicate that in Germany that title is tantamount to CEO of a major corporation. In Metzmacher's case, he's established a tradition in Hamburg that speaks volumes. It seems that there the arrival of the New Year is celebrated not with Strauss waltzes or Beethoven's Ninth, but with a now popular tradition under the motto "Who's Afraid of Twentieth Century Music?" Metzmacher certainly isn't – and as he tells us, his personal epiphany with modern music started with Ives, and it goes way back:
Ich habe Charles Ives kennengelernt, da war ich so 16 oder 17, das war das erste Mal, wo ich moderne Musik gehört habe. Der Eindruck ist mir unvergesslich, und seitdem mag ich diese Musik. Ich habe ja dann mit dem Ensemble Modern ein größeres Projekt gemacht über Charles Ives, das wir auch aufgenommen haben, und ich habe über die Jahre natürlich das eine oder andere Stück für Orchester dirigiert. Ich finde, Ives ist ein ganz origineller Komponist ohne Beispiel eigentlich, und für mich vermittelt sich durch die Musik dieser Pioniergeist – weg von der europäischen Tradition – also ein Geist von Freiheit weht über dieser Musik, der mich immer besonders berührt.
I was about 16 or 17 when I first got to know Charles Ives; that was really my first opportunity to hear modern music. It made an unforgettable impression on me, and I have loved this music since then. In fact I was involved in a fairly big project with the Ensemble Modern on Charles Ives, and we recorded the whole thing. Also over the years I've conducted this or that Ives piece with different orchestras. In my opinion, Ives is a totally original composer without model or peer. And what I hear in his music is this pioneering spirit, a turning away from European traditions. It's a spirit of freedom that floats over this music which always has a special effect on me.
Charles Ives himself had a notable childhood experience in music, and echoes of it turn up in his Fourth Symphony. And that experience was hearing four or five different marching bands from neighboring communities simultaneously parading into the central square of his hometown, Danbury, Connecticut, for an Independence Day celebration, each playing its own distinctive tune. The result: a joyful jumble of different melodies, keys, and rhythms, with fragments of familiar tunes drifting in and out of a clangorous crescendo in the center of the work.
On another level, there's an underlying philosophical structure which Ives himself indicated in some written notes. The opening movement poses eternal questions about the meaning and purpose of life, in part by means of the hymns intoned by the chorus. To these questions the following two movements suggest the divergent answers our very existence provides: the second in the form of that multilayered joyful cacophony of competing marching bands, an early 19th-century rural equivalent to Times Square at rush hour, the third in the form of a surprisingly traditional fugue as a symbol of academic study and intellectual distance from sensual pleasures.
These two elements represent the juxtaposition of experience and learning, of comedy and tragedy. In the finale then, the summation of the foregoing with quotations of the chorale themes sung by the chorus and fragments of the earlier band tunes, and a final apotheosis, as a small percussion group off-stage seems to lose itself in the distance, and all earthly sounds recede into a chorus of heavenly voices – actually a small group of harp and strings placed in the balcony – and finally, silence.
Charles Ives virtually completed his Fourth Symphony by 1916, yet die composer, who lived until 1954, never had the experience of hearing it performed whole. It's impossible to predict whether Ives' music will ever find a regular place in the concert repertoire, be it in his native country or elsewhere in the world.
In that sense, Ives is nothing like Beethoven. But in another, Ives is Beethoven's spiritual kin, and he surely would have been gratified to have his own music coupled with that of the earlier revolutionary musician. And to the credit of the Beethoven Festival Bonn, this performance of a difficult work requiring great resources is proof of more than just lipservice to the goal of cultural progress through curiosity for and openness to the new. The Philharmonic State Orchestra Hamburg is joined by two choirs, Merler Kantorei Meckenheim and Bonn Bach Chorus, and smaller instrumental groups off-stage and in the balcony, as well as solo pianist Sebastian Knauer.
Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony, a work from the early 20th century that still seems new and even revolutionary at the beginning of the 21st. The performance at the Beethoven Festival was still one of the rare ones of a composition that wasn't premiered until 1955, one year after Charles Ives died at age eighty. At the International Beethoven Festival in Bonn, this solitary figure in American cultural history shared the program with the most universal of composers, Bonn's native son, Ludwig van Beethoven.
Ingo Metzmacher is a noted modernist in fact, and he has experience in novophobia therapy with the Hamburg New Year's concert tradition called "Who's Afraid of 20th Century Music?". It seems that in the early years of the 21st century, the good folks of Hamburg are intent on sweeping out the fearful ghosts of the 20th.