Once, the phrase “20th-century music” struck fear into the hearts of less adventurous concertgoers. They associated it with barbaric eardrum-rupturing sounds or inexpressive, cerebral music incomprehensible to all but a few devoted acolytes.
However, plenty of the last century’s works have been successfully assimilated into classical music programs.
Take Ravel’s “La Valse” (1920) and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (1936), two beloved compositions that can be programmed with Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky with few eyebrows raised.
Those two audience favorites appeared in Sunday’s concert by the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus in a program at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium consisting entirely of 20th-century music, organized around the theme of World War I — to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles. Guest conductor Michael Gerdes also led the musicians in rarely heard works by Ives, Vaughan Williams and Butterworth.
Barber and his “Adagio” had no connection to the war, but thanks to its use as memorial music for FDR, JFK, and others, and to its constant presence in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” it is America’s go-to piece for solemnity and mourning.
Ravel served in World War I, as did Vaughan Williams and Butterworth. Many see “La Valse” as an allegory of Austria gone awry, an interpretation Ravel denied. We can agree that “La Valse” begins with swirling elements that coalesce into elegant waltzes, growing more sinister until the music crashes and burns.
What the La Jolla Symphony’s performance may have lacked in finely rendered details, it made up for in momentum. Gerdes saw that the work’s sudden halts, restarts and giddy climbs surged forward to its tragic end.
In between these two works was “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose,” a composition by Charles Ives musically depicting New Yorkers spontaneously bursting into a hymn as word spread of the German attack on the S.S. Lusitania.
Ives never pretended that the real world moved in synchronous rhythms; daily life is a coarse mixture of different rhythmic patterns overlapping at different speeds, snatches of music fading in and out, harmonies not ordered by composers but roughly happening as they may. In “Hanover Square,” Ives honestly captured existence in a way no other composers of his time attempted, and that few have done since.
Aided by Andrew King conducting an offstage orchestra, Gerdes and the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus brought Ives’ beautiful cacophony and humane optimism to wonderful life.
The heart of this concert was “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Give Us Peace) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, his 1936 cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra. Its texts are drawn from Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry, the Bible and a speech opposing the Crimean War by British Liberal MP John Bright.
“Dona Nobis Pacem” is an impassioned plea for pacifism. We usually associate Vaughan Williams with music influenced by British folk songs, but his harmonies are darkly chromatic in “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Musical battle cries and a gloomy funeral march anchor the work in strife.
Eden Tremayne was an angelic soprano petitioning peace for humanity. A hopeful conclusion found the chorus praying for a world without war.
This was the most polished performance of the day, with good intonation and disciplined ensemble work from the orchestra. Members of the chorus passionately sang their parts, but their diction often had me digging through the program notes to understand them. Baritone Anthony Whitson-Martini impressed with a resonant voice full of gravitas.
George Butterworth didn’t finish many compositions before he died in the Battle of Somme at the age of 31. His most popular orchestral work, “The Banks of Green Willow (1913),” is an idyllic reworking of the titular English folk song and another, “Green Bushes.”
Percy Grainger and others had hybridized British folk songs with concert music before this; Butterworth’s unique gift was in dismantling and re-assembling the melodies so they flow effortlessly without exact repetition.
This generally tranquil, pastoral rhapsody was sincerely played by the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, with notable contributions from oboist Carol Rothrock and flutist Joey Payton. It was a peaceful close to a concert threaded with war and destruction; that repose was undercut by the poignancy of Butterworth dying in combat three years after composing this gentle work.
Hertzog is a freelance writer.