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kelvin Ensemble, Bute Hall, Glasgow UNIVERSITY

SINCE the day and hour I got hold of Lenny Bernstein's recording of Charles Ives's Second Symphony, decades ago, that music has been in my blood.

Its lush romanticism, multiple eclecticisms from Brahms to Wagner and Beethoven, its Looney Tunes cornucopia of American popular and patriotic songs, from America the Beautiful to The Camptown Races, and its completely bonkers finale, have conjured a heady, intoxicating allure that has never left me.

In 30 years in this business I've only once heard it live (Martyn Brabbins conducted). I heard it again, at last, on Saturday night, in rather extraordinary circumstances. It's a fiendishly difficult symphony to pull off. The orchestra playing it in Glasgow University's Bute Hall was the Kelvin Ensemble, an entirely student-run and resourced orchestra.

Frankly, the proposition of a student band pulling off Ives Two is near-preposterous. But largely, their performance with their conductor Chris Swaffer was effective. Swaffer might have given it more drive and definition: the music calls for as much flamboyance as it does precision. And it absolutely has to be unself-conscious or you will cringe. But it was great to hear it again, played with gusto by the gutsy students. And if the climactic Seventh Cavalry Charge hurls the great symphony headlong into the brick wall of dissonance that is the last bar, a chord that slams together every note God conceived, the performance can be deemed to have worked. It did.

The Kelvin Ensemble paved the way for blockbuster Ives with atmospheric and evocative accounts of two American concert hall rarities, Copland's Our Town and Dvorak's American Suite. A splendid enterprise. God bless America.


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