February 2004

Heather O'Donnell interprets Ives

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Heather O'Donnell interprets Ives

by Nancy Chapple

Heather O'Donnell

Coming to Berlin to make the best of the tremendous cultural opportunities: Heather O'Donnell is one of many foreign artists drawn to the city over the years. The 30-year old pianist studied at the New England Conservatory and the Mannes School of Music; before moving to Berlin just 15 months ago, she lived for six years in New York. For the "Ives and Consequences" theme at this year's MaerzMusik festival, she has been given the opportunity to commission and perform a number of works for solo piano, reactions in one way or another to Ives's compositions.

Ms. O'Donnell first became acquainted with Ives's most well-known and frequently played work for piano, the Concord Sonata, at the age of 18. Immediately pulled in, she set to learning it right away, "although it was perhaps too difficult for me at the time." Her fascination with the work and subsequently with the composer himself have evidently dominated her musical life since then. She has worked with various teachers on her interpretation of his works, has performed and re-performed the great Concord Sonata. She vividly and spontaneously describes the various stages in his long musical life.

To understand what shaped Charles Ives and where he was coming from, O'Donnell suggests taking a close look at his biography. He received his first instruction in piano from his father, and later turned to the organ, becoming the youngest salaried church organist in Connecticut at just 14. His father's musical training was iconoclastic: the boys sang in one key while he accompanied in another; they built instruments that could play quarter-tones; an incident with brass bands coming from two sides playing different tunes is often cited. In a peculiarly American way, after a highly musical childhood and intense education in musical composition at Yale, he decided not to devote himself professionally to music, but rather to become a clerk at an insurance company. He felt he would be stifled by the relentlessly conservative musical establishment, and wanted to be free of it. He worked his way up the ranks in insurance, later founding an agency that would become the country's largest.

In early works written at Yale, such as the First String Quartet, he integrated gospel hymns with the forms, textures and thematic manipulation of European-Romantic music. Critics date his musical maturity from his 1908 marriage to Harmony Twichell. According to his biographer Jan Swafford, "Filled with quotes of music from Beethoven to Stephen Foster and American hymnodists, Ives's mature work is music about music, or rather music as a symbol of human life and striving and spirituality. ... Memories of his childhood are transcended, his hometown made into an image of the primal human community, where people worship and celebrate, with music a vital part of it all."

Asked why the dates indicated for Ives's works often bridge several years (e.g. the "Fourth Symphony, 1910/1916"), O'Donnell describes his constant revision processes - he did not believe in the idea of a musical composition standing for all eternity. Again and again, Ives's works seemed ahead of their time, and were considered not performable. For decades, he wrote practically without public exposure. Although in frequent contact with musicians and composers of his time, even sponsoring several musicians' studies in Europe, his works were rarely performed, some only after his death. This hurt him greatly. Though he never regretted his professional decision to earn money with insurance, he did resent that he didn't find listeners, and he became more embittered over the years. He had a serious heart attack at 43, and neither he nor his work completely recovered. Towards the end, several important musicians devoted significant parts of their lives to his work, e.g. Henry Cowell, Nicolas Slonimsky, and Lou Harrison. Important performances of his music were given in the 30s and 40s, and he ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947.

Heather O'Donnell has made a name for herself in New York performing contemporary music and new works, in part inspired by the close artistic colIaboration with her composer husband Oliver Schneller, who is composing an Ives-inspired piece called And Tomorrow... for piano and electronics for her program on March 21. Asked what other composers are important to her, she says she feels an affinity with "the underdogs of music history", those who composed music that was insufficiently appreciated at the time. She cites her preference for Schubert over Beethoven, for Schumann over Liszt.

She describes some of the premieres to be performed in "A Contemporary Response to Charles Ives", stressing that the different composers have responded to different elements of Ives's work: Frederic Rzewski's Johnny has Gone for a Soldier explores Ives's political and social dimensions; Michael Finnissy, who often incorporates aspects of earlier composers in his own compositions, integrates various Ivesian elements in Song of Myself. She reveals that not all of the composers had an easygoing or adulatory relationship to Ives, but that for all he was a presence.

Ms. O'Donnell's two performances during MaerzMusik are both on Sunday, March 21: "A Contemporary Response to Charles Ives", consisting of the 7 commissioned works and smaller works by Ives himself, at 11:00 in the Werner-Otto-Saal of the Konzerthaus; and a performance of Ives's Second Piano Sonata, Concord, Mass. 1840-1869 at 17:00 in the Studios Nalepastraße. Other concerts in the "Ives and Consequences" series will take place throughout the Maerzmusik festival.

Note: biographical excerpts quoted from Jan Swafford, copyright 1998 by Peermusic, Ltd.