With Ives’s Fourth Symphony, Philharmonic Presents Poignant, Searching Questions

Ives.

Ives.

For the past two nights, guests arriving at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall have found two harps and five extra music stands occupying part of the second balcony next to the stage. They sat unoccupied for the first part of the program on Wednesday and Thursday evening, as the New York Philharmonic debuted composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse’s fearsome and taut 10-minute Prospero’s Rooms (2012) and as Joshua Bell maneuvered his violin nimbly, delicately through Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (1953–54), offering an almost jaunty feel in the piece’s jazzy closing moments.

But after the intermission, two harpists and five violinists finally took up those positions to help perform Charles Ives’s richly complex Symphony No. 4 (ca. 1912–18/1921–25). They were joined by scores of singers from the New York Choral Consortium, a Theremin, three pianos—one outfitted to play quarter tones—and a large retinue of other instruments. In the lobby during the break, some guests lingered in front of television screens showing the stage, eagerly watching the preparations. It has been nearly 10 years since the Philharmonic mounted the piece.

“There is nothing objectionable about a modern conductor choosing to divide the labors,” the liner notes advised, and so yes, an additional conductor, Case Scaglione, came on stage with Alan Gilbert, for the Ives, sitting himself just a few feet to the left of the maestro. (Some conductors use two supporters.) Together they ably guided the orchestra through the piece’s most difficult sections, when multiple sets of instrumentalists play at different tempos and time signatures to make a collage of overlapping marching bands and Protestant hymns, an all-American cacophony. Though he was always admirably restrained, never a distraction, Mr. Scaglione lent some drama to the action, turning to various groups and up to the balcony, even sidling up alongside Mr. Gilbert in one particularly thorny section, reminding everyone of just how delicate and nuanced this music is, and how miraculous it is when musicians nail it, as happened on Thursday night, when I attended.

“It’s a piece that has to be experienced live,” Mr. Gilbert told The Times last week, and while that may be true of most music, I have never felt it as profoundly as with the Fourth, watching that little corps in the balcony float down ghostly melodies in the first movement, joined by the chorus with snippets of the hymn “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night”; or, in the second, watching two violinists at the far end of the stage as they danced quietly, almost unnoticed, with the piano. Mr. Gilbert rendered that wild second movement, the Allegretto, with an exacting viciousness, the brass turning violent by the end, as melodies pile on top of melodies to form a whole crashing wall of sound, in which no single theme is decipherable, just a glorious tangle of ideas.

Describing the program of the Fourth, Ives said that its maestoso Prelude asks “the searching questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life”—the sort of questions Americans have been asking a lot this week—and that the following three movements are “the diverse answers in which existence replies.” Those answers are complicated and fragmentary, hard to understand, which seems appropriate for the present moment. On Wednesday evening, The Times reported, the Philharmonic had played Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations (1898–99) as a memorial to composer Colin Davis and those injured and killed in Boston.

On Thursday, there was no Elgar, just Ives, but that was enough: his assorted ensembles formed and re-formed, often humming away at their own pace but uniting in brief moments of extreme beauty, as in the final, fourth movement, which the orchestra delivered with a crystalline clarity. The piece slowly grew, as a rumbling bass then woodwinds and piano entered. A Theremin sang through most of the movement, a spectral voice met only by the chorus at the very end, with a brief, always painfully too-short fragment of the melody for the hymn Bethany. The gentle patter of drums and cymbal clanked away thoughout the movement, ever-present and mysterious.

The program will be repeated on Friday and Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall.