Charles Ives is unique among major composers. Composing was his avocation, albeit an all-consuming one. His day job was selling life insurance — which he did very successfully: his agency grew to be the largest in America. Ives's decision not to rely on composing for his income gave him the freedom to write music unfettered by conventional tastes. His exuberant, pioneering personality, his love of the popular and religious music of his childhood, and his rigorous training in European classical forms combined to create the first quintessentially American classical music.

Ann Arbor's Charles Ives American Music Festival, now in its third year, echoes Ives's remarkable productivity and his proclivity for combining disparate elements in his music. What began in 2005 as pianist Kathryn Goodson's dissertation recital grew last year to a weekend of concerts — it will stretch to three days this year, Friday through Sunday, February 16 through 18 — presented by the Phoenix Ensemble and the Peter Sparling Dance Company. This year's festival features internationally famed musicians (and local legends) Bill Bolcom and Joan Morris.

Bolcom and Morris were also instrumental in convincing Goodson, the festival's artistic director, to invite soprano Helen Boatwright, who performs on Saturday. In 1954 Boatwright recorded what are still considered to be the definitive interpretations of many Ives songs. Today, at ninety, she is still performing, still in great voice, and still, in Bolcom's admiring words, "a very feisty lady."

Returning to the festival are several artists who have been at its core from the beginning. Goodson brings her vast knowledge and passion for Ives's work, and matches it with a prodigious technique that enables her to play his sometimes very difficult music. This year she'll play the "Hawthorne" movement of Ives's massive Concord Sonata, a piece that Bolcom calls "a real finger-buster" and that Goodson says is "the hardest music I've ever played." Violinist Gabe Bolkosky's extensive training in and affinity for modern classical music make him an ideal Ives interpreter; his gorgeous tone makes even Ivesian dissonances lyrical. Leah Dexter's supple voice and superb vocal acting allow her to embody the full range of Ives's songs, from the whimsical to the dramatic.

The festival locations are also Ivesian. The intimate Northside Community Church (Friday and Saturday) allows listeners to experience Ives's music in a setting similar to the ones that inspired much of it, while Peter Sparling's Dance Gallery Studio (Sunday) is ideally suited to Ives's visionary ideals. Surrounding the dance floor, on the same level as the dancers and musicians, allows an audience to be more directly involved than they can be in a concert hall, and Sparling's choreography gives an added level of richness to Ives's music. This year, for the monumental From the Steeples and the Mountains, Sparling and his dancers will use as props the four huge sets of chimes (each seven feet tall and weighing 200 pounds) that the piece calls for.

Ives is a giant among the giants of American music. As Helen Boatwright says, "No one could match his originality."

[Review published February 2007]