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James Sinclair: Integrating Ives

" This is the paradox of Ives's music, echoing his paradoxical person: he could be realistic, comic, transcendent, simple, complex, American, and European, all at the same time." Jan Swafford

Like Charles Ives, the great American composer he reveres and champions, James Sinclair cheerfully embraces contradictions and contrasts. The trend started, he says, when as a child he decided not to take up the piano, the instrument his mother taught, but to play the cello and trumpet instead.

"I started lessons at age ten on two instruments my mother didn't teach. When you're ten or eleven and your mother's telling you everything you should do, piano lessons would have been over the top."

Given a choice between the cello and the trumpet, musical considerations did not enter too much into the equation. He stayed longer with the trumpet because, of the school groups he played with, the band was "a more fun set of people." But soon, more important concerns took over and began to shape his life in music. Sinclair discovered that he wanted to conduct.

"I was always the leader type at school. One day when our orchestral director stormed out of rehearsal, we all sat there baffled, not knowing what to do. Finally, after we had fiddled with our instruments for a while, I leapt to the podium and took over. I was 14 and that was my first attempt to conduct music. I liked it a lot."

Just as Charles Ives divided his time between business and music, Sinclair also has divided his energies almost equally between the extroverted life of an active conductor and the more introverted world of meticulous scholarship.

In 1999, Yale University Press published his monumental 800-page Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives, widely cited as the best publication of 1999 in arts scholarship.

"I came to Yale years ago to meet all the Ives scholars. I've lived there ever since. Ives was a Yale man, after all (Class of 1898). But even before Yale, I was gripped by Ives after hearing Bernstein give a TV lecture in 1963. He was talking about The Fourth of July, that accelerating melange of American experience. Through the magic of TV and the close-up camera, I was swept along by it all. I was sixteen. It was a total seizure of the intellect and my musical response."

Sinclair seems never to have compromised in his devotion to Ives since that 1963 inception. He founded the Orchestra New England in 1974 to gather the many forces present in New Haven to perform Ives with the required conviction and credibility. Since then, Sinclair has served as music director for a television documentary about Ives, led the American Symphony Orchestra in a festival of Ives' output, and in October 1996 led the New World Symphony in a birthday concert celebration of the composer's music. In 1998, Sinclair directed a landmark Ives Festival at Yale University.

Yet Sinclair, the devoted scholar, is no dry pedant. He is a man who enjoys life--a keen swimmer and golfer, a nocturnal person who prefers a Hawaiian beach to a library, and a Thai restaurant (he has five favourite ones) to a bowl of muesli. Although he claims that his cooking skills leave much to be desired, he does have the knack of inviting the best cooks into his kitchen.

In Newcastle, where he recorded Ives' Third Symphony for Naxos with the UK's Northern Sinfonia, he was almost as much enamoured by the atmosphere of his surroundings as by the versatility of the orchestra.

"The Sinfonia was a marvellous group to work with, and we enjoyed a wonderful working atmosphere in All Saints' Church right upon the water in Newcastle, just up the hill from the docks. A fine string group with a superb concertmaster. The engineer and producer were a great support and comfort in the four sessions it took us to record. A totally professional experience."

For his first Ives' recording on Naxos, Sinclair assembled a key selection of the composer's output gathered around the Third Symphony, including The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark.

"The Third Symphony is a charming work. I loved doing it because there's a real sincerity in the music, an American-ness, empathy for the church music he had grown up performing as an organist ... The Unanswered Question is one of the most abstract and transferable pieces imaginable. The piece has a tremendous sound mystery to it, a great sense of space, of three-dimensionality. The companion piece to the Unanswered Question is Central Park in the Dark. We had a lot of fun with that. It's a contemplation of nothing serious."

The remaining CD programme is filled out with several other Ives classics: Washington's Birthday, reminiscent of New England winters, Overture and March 1776, the overture to an opera never written, and Country Band March, a loving parody of the march genre.

While in Dublin recording his next Naxos CD with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Sinclair had the pleasing experience of working with an ensemble that was not overly familiar with the music of Ives. The ambience of the sessions was perfect, he says, a wonderful place for the engineers to swing into action and capture the magic of a location.

"I couldn't imagine a finer place to record. It's a Victorian hall constructed so that the orchestra can wrap the audience around them. It's got an organ up at the top and choral seating behind the orchestra, a lovely acoustical arrangement which allows the sound to really get around. [It creates] an incredible clarity on stage. The sound goes out to the hall with this beautiful bloom and sheen. The woodwind and brass of the orchestra were truly scintillating in this venue."

For this second recording he put together just two works: the First Symphony and the never-before-recorded Emerson Concerto with Alan Feinberg as soloist.

"I had never heard Ives' First until 1966 when a premiere recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Morton Gould was released. I was driving at the time and listening to it on the car radio. I thought ... what a wonderful symphony. I had no idea that it was Ives until I got to the finale and heard the spring of the rhythms. It's melodically gracious and by the time its gets to the finale it has a very characteristic verve, a reflection of Ives' personality. It's a glorious piece.

"The Emerson Concerto is a 'stunning revelation'--I always term it thus--a piano concerto by Ives which for a long time no one knew existed. It's on the subject of the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson ... Ives was very interested in the author's inherent optimism. The Concerto casts the solo piano as Emerson and the orchestra as his congregation or audience. The orchestra reacts and tries to understand the challenges from the piano and slowly arrives at a sense of peace as the work progresses through its twenty-two minutes. It's very bold at the beginning and very sublime at the end, a journey of spirituality and optimism.

Rather than viewing his two passions-conducting and scholarship-as being in opposition to one another, Sinclair seems to delight in his two roles. Indeed, they appear to have a symbiotic relationship.

"When I give a performance, I want a fresh and intuitive interaction with the music. The scholarship is swallowed up by that experience, but it also figures in the equation all the way. In the end, it doesn't matter what's running the decisions you make. There's never any contradiction in getting things right and having your orchestra behind you as a result."

Sinclair's scholarship sometimes has unexpected results. For example, only someone like Sinclair could know that in Central Park in the Dark, Ives had an old upright piano, not the standard Steinway grand, in mind for a certain key episode of the score. The Naxos recording will be the first, Sinclair believes, that consistently pays attention to such details.

That kind of authenticity adds special quality to Sinclair's recordings for Naxos and has allowed his ensembles to glimpse the stunning integrity of this Ives scholar turned Ives conductor. Just like Ives, Sinclair ignores the possible incongruity and, in a triumph of integration, produces bountiful results.

"Ives music is all about contradiction and stark contrasts; he swings between rationality, emotionalism, formalism, and dynamic innovation. You have to have an open mind and also the capacity to change direction. You also have to do your homework on him."

Sinclair gladly rises to the challenge.

The recording of Ives' Symphony No.3 (8.559087) is now available in select countries. Contact your local distributor for more information.

Interview written by Dr. George Adams. The article is the property of and may not be republished without permission.


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