DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

CHARLES IVES: Holidays Symphony – Keeping Score series, Blu-ray (2009)

The third of the current series of San Francisco Symphony concert videos with documentary introductions.

Published on December 20, 2009

CHARLES IVES: Holidays Symphony – Keeping Score series, Blu-ray (2009)

CHARLES IVES: Holidays Symphony – Keeping Score series, Blu-ray (2009)

Performers: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony

Documentary + Full-length concert performance 

Producers/Directors: David Kennard & Joan Saffa; live performance: Gary Halvorson

Studio: SFS Media Blu-ray [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]

Video: 16:9 1080i HD color

Audio: Dolby Digital HD 7.1, 2.0

Subtitles (Doc.): Closed-caption English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese

Extras: Documentary

Length: 111 minutes

Rating: *****

This is the third of the three Blu-rays issued by the San Francisco Symphony (also on standard DVD), following up on their earlier release of four similar DVDs devoted to the analysis and performance of well-known works of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Copland. The other two in the current series are on Shostakovich and Berlioz (which we have both reviewed).  Each has a one-hour documentary on the particular composer and work, hosted by Michael Tilson Thomas and featuring orchestra members, plus a complete performance of the entire work. All have been also telecast in HD on PBS stations nationally.

This one is a courageous choice for the Keeping Score series since many concert-goers are turned off by the savage chaos often heard in the music Ives – never mind that they may support his nostalgia for a simpler, earlier New England lifestyle.  Michael Tilson Thomas is far from a newcomer to the difficult music of Ives, he recorded some of his works earlier in his career. In the documentary – which you should definitely view first – MTT visits Ives’ home and explores some of the interesting elements of his musical upbringing – such as his military band leader father deliberately have two marching bands playing different tunes march into one another just to savor the bitonal effect! One comes away with a new appreciation of this unusual American who forged his highly individual style free of any other composers’ influences, and free of having to make a living at it – since his real business was founding a major insurance company.  

After the fascinating Ives documentary, MTT gives us an introduction to the entire Holidays Symphony, plus reciting words included by Ives himself to introduce each of the four movements.  We are given insights into the composer and his musical portrayals of the various seasons in New England thru five different holidays (the last movement is a combination of two). The most dynamic of the four is The Fourth of July, with churchbells, firecrackers, gunshots, dancing, and general celebration. The visual staging of the several distant instrumental soloists in the music is dramatic and gives the viewer more involvement in the music. The final joining in of the small chorus at the end of the fourth movement is thrilling.  With the many cameras used, including remote-control cameras on tracks thru the orchestra, and high-overhead cameras which can swoop down from the balconies where the distant musicians are located, to the symphony’s stage, the visual presentation – especially in Blu-ray – is superbly accomplished.

As the box says, “MTT, the SF Symphony, and Ives belt it out over truth, beauty, and the American Way.”

 – John Sunier

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