Thoreau, Ives Examined

The Arizona Cultural Forum seeks to bring scholars and artists together around a certain theme

So I was having lunch last year with Harry Clark, the cellist and playwright who with his pianist-wife, Sanda Schuldman, runs Chamber Music Plus Southwest. Harry was outlining his plan to make Arizona his base of operations, now that he's moved back here to his hometown after decades on the east coast.

Part of his plan, it turned out, involved me.

For years, Harry had been batting around an idea with Libby Larsen, a leading composer based in Minnesota, for a cultural forum that would bring together scholars and artists for talks and performances revolving around certain personalities and ideas. Harry figured Tucson was the place where he could pull it off. And he asked me to help.

The Arizona Cultural Forum's premiere offering is called Transcendent Thought: A Celebration and Inquiry Into Henry David Thoreau and Charles Edward Ives. It revolves around the strange and wonderful American composer Charles Ives, who was active principally during the first decade and a half of the 20th century and made a virtue of cacophony. Imagine standing in Central Park on a calm summer night; from one direction, you hear a brass band playing popular tunes and marches, while from another, a Salvation Army ensemble plays hymns, and enveloping it all are the sounds of nature in the evening. That's part of the Ives style, although his aesthetics were more complicated than that.

The 50th anniversary of Ives' death last year coincided with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Thoreau's Walden, the back-to-nature bible of generations of college students. Walden was partly observations he made during two years living in a simple cabin by Walden Pond near Concord, Mass., in the 1840s. And it was partly a philosophical tract, an expression of the Transcendentalist movement, which emphasized the spiritual truth to be found in every element of nature, something that could be comprehended better by intuition than reason. With its focus on the unity and spiritual dimension of all things natural--including humans--Transcendentalism was sort of an American Zen.

Ives was deeply inspired by Transcendentalism, and went so far as to write a piano sonata, the "Concord," in which each movement was a portrait of a Transcendentalist figure, such as Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Maybe not the most commercial topic, but we're trying to make it interesting to non-specialists. We've got a speaker who'll talk about Transcendentalism in general and Walden in particular; the major Ives biographer, Jan Swafford, talking about his subject; Libby Larsen talking about how Ives listened to things, used what he heard, and bequeathed his way of listening to later composers; University of Arizona professor Nicholas Zumbro playing the "Concord" Sonata; baritone David Majoros singing a group of Ives songs "curated" and discussed by a panel of composers, including Larsen and Dan Asia; and lots more.

And those are just the daytime events, taking place March 4-5 at Academy Village, the professors' retirement community out near Colossal Cave. Those sessions are free, but because of lunch complications, you should make reservations at 400-5439.

If you prefer to stay closer to home, we have evening performances in town.

Friday night, it's a staged reading of Harry's play Cornets of Paradise, in which Ives meets poet Emily Dickinson in the afterlife to ponder their families, lives, loves and art. William Killian, courtesy of Actors Equity, plays Ives, and Julia Matias, who recently did a splendid job in Borderlands Theater's Living Out, plays Dickinson. Admission costs $10 to this event in the banquet room of Hotel Congress. Again, call 400-5439.

Saturday night, it's celebrated UA theater professor Harold Dixon's turn to portray Ives in Harry's Unanswered Question: An Orchestral Portrait of Charles Ives, with Thomas Cockrell conducting the Arizona Symphony Orchestra at Crowder Hall on the UA campus. This one costs $9 general, with discounts for senior and students. For this event only, call 621-1162.

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