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Monday, September 13, 2021

The Copland Legacy

From the Classical Vault Dept.: I’ve been covering the Bard Summerscape series for enough years that some of the earlier programs I’ve attended are starting to fade into the memory mists. Which is why it’s nice to discover a piece like the piece below, reminding me of a visit I made there sixteen years ago.


THE JOY OF BARD’S ANNUAL SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL is the concentration of music and people relating to the year’s chosen composer. This year, Aaron Copland got the much-deserved limelight, opening a window on the state of American music throughout the last century.

Aaron Copland
As in past years, the final summer concert last Sunday featured the American Symphony Orchestra in a rip-roaring program the like of which you’ll never find in a mainstream concert series. Copland’s brassy Symphony No. 3 was the centerpiece, but the rarely performed Third Symphony by Roger Sessions also was on the program, a work that practically insists that you dislike it upon first hearing.

Which may say more about we as listeners than about Sessions as a composer. True, his later music resisted the pursuit of populist approval, but it rewards the educated, open-minded listener with an experience of emotionally satisfying complexity. His four-movement Symphony No. 3, which dates from 1946, opens with a Molto agitato movement that explodes in your face with slashing gestures that soon coalesce into a remarkable soundscape, highlighted by solo violin over horn chords.

The runs and repeated notes that characterize the Allegretto capriccioso that followed wove in and around themselves with the contrapuntal techniques Sessions liked to employ, and it’s here that the shortfall of this concert was realized: Housed in a shiny new concert hall, composed of some of the best players in the New York area, the orchestra nevertheless was brass heavy at the expense of those inner voices.

Part of the problem is the lousy acoustic response of the hall, which buries the sound of the strings; part is the dynamic balance conductor Botstein achieves, which tilts in favor of so much volume that many in the audience had fingers jammed in their ears.

It wreaked havoc in the Sessions symphony, but suited the several fanfares with which the concert opened – negligible works (sadly) by Roy Harris, Walter Piston and William Grant Still, with a sleeper by Henry Cowell that was worth hearing. Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which was played a few days earlier, was commissioned along with these works as part of a World War II jingoistic spirit, and Copland reworked the stirring theme of his piece into his Symphony No. 3 (1946), one of his last major orchestral works.

A stirring rendition (there can’t be any other kind with a work like this) concluded the concert, again with the roar of the orchestra’s expert brass section giving bones and teeth to the work. Copland the unabashed populist was in evidence in the first and third movements, with overtones of “Appalachian Spring,” but the second movement, Allegro molto, demonstrated not only the composer’s ready wit but also his debt to the likes of Shostakovich. Just when you thought it might get a little outré, however, we’re back to the pentatonic scale-sounds that characterize Copland’s “Billy the Kid” and it all feels quite all-American.

Copland’s Ivesian “Inscape,” written for the 1962 opening of Lincoln Center, also was performed to impressive effect, its hymnlike quality set off by the aggressive cacophony of its outer sections. And his 1949 “Preamble for a Solemn Occasion” vies with his own “A Lincoln Portrait” for the title of Most Overblown Piece of Orchestral Tripe, but the “Portrait” still wins thanks to the brevity of the narration thumbtacked into this piece.

Declaimed in a near whisper by Mia Farrow, even the distortion-inducing overamplification couldn’t make up for her complete lack of dramatic conviction.

The afternoon’s concert featured Copland’s Piano Quartet from 1950, one of his more aggressive forays into serialism, but built on an 11-note tone row. The scalar movement of his row elements provided plenty of opportunity to harmonize the work in an ear-pleasing way, and this may be one of the best pieces with which to introduce the nervous listener into such techniques.

By contrast, David Del Tredici’s setting of a James Joyce text, “I Hear an Army,” for soprano and string quartet, is seeded with smaller elements drawn together in service of the text, sung with elegance by Courtenay Budd. Although it’s a tough-to-listen-to piece, plangent and disturbing, it packs a wallop, a fitting close to the program’s first half.

Copland’s friend and biographer Arthur Berger was represented with a Duo for cello and piano, a work with a serial sensibility but tonal overtones, often setting up an intricate byplay between the two instruments. Lukas Foss’s Capriccio for the same pairing is a more lyrical, light-hearted work, and both were excellently played by cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Simone Dinnerstein.

Tenor Philippe Castagner and pianist Kevin Murphy gave captivating readings of song settings by Britten and Rorem, the former comprising four of the Folk Song Arrangements, the latter to texts by Ben Jonson and Robert Frost. A gnarly Flute Sonatine by Pierre Boulez and a percussion interlude co-composed by John Cage and Lou Harrison rounded out the program.

American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein, conductor
Bard Summerscape Series
Sunday, 23 August 2005

Metroland Magazine, 28 August 2005

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