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Essential Copland

A close look at the must-have works of Aaron Copland
By Gary Barton

Aaron CoplandI had interviewed Jack Lemmon, Gene Hackman, Beverly Sills, Steve Allen… even the art editor for The Times of Bombay, but nothing prepared me for the experience of meeting the dean of American composers: Aaron Copland.

His was an unassuming presence, intensely alert and honest to a fault. When I asked him about what he meant in a particular passage of his book What To Listen For in Music his immediate reaction was, "Did I say that? I have no idea what I was trying to put across." I asked him about Damrosch's famous quote regarding Copland's early Organ Symphony... something along the lines that anyone who had written such a piece would be ready to commit murder in the next 3 years. Copland remained nonplussed, responding that he had no idea about what Damrosch was talking about. It was an uncomfortable interview, made even more so by the glowering of the then- music critic for the Cincinnati Enquirer, who I could see through the control room window, fuming that he wasn't allowed in the studio.

Copland was kind, but distant. He amiably agreed to autograph a couple of albums from my collection after the tape had stopped rolling, then disappeared. I so much wanted to make contact with him, to tell him how much his music had meant to me over the years, that my father wouldn't let me play Copland's music in the house when he was at home because it was too dissonant. (Appalachian Spring? Dissonant!?!) But, I had shaken the great man's hand and shared words with him amiably... Perhaps that was all that was meant to happen...

The Essential Copland

A Copland Celebration
Volume 1: Famous Orchestral and Chamber Works
Volume 2: Chamber Music and Rarities
Volume 3: Vocal and Choral Works
Sony Classical: 89323, 89326, 89329

One three-volume set will help you gain a well-rounded sound picture of this man's remarkable life work—Sony Classical's A Copland Celebration. Each volume in the series contains 2 CDs.

I must say I am totally impressed—bowled over might be more accurate an assessment—by the true authenticity afforded by Copland's personal touch, albeit conductor or accompanist. This collection is a "living" testament of the music Copland has left for us. It is obvious from listening to them that even A Lincoln Portrait, conducted by Kostelanetz bears the imprimatur of the composer, literally! Also, Sony used its immense archive in a creative and entertaining manner. In one of the CD booklets you can see the autographs on Kostelanetz's copy of the score, with Copland proclaiming his support not once but twice, apparently for different performances separated by years. Best of all, there is material in these three volumes that had heretofore only been available on vinyl and not on compact discs.

Volume 1: Famous Orchestral and Chamber Works
Sony 89323

A Copland Celebration, Volume 1Volume 1 includes Fanfare for the Common Man, a near national anthem commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra during the reign of Eugene Goosens at the time of the Second World War; Copland's famous "cowboy" ballets, Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes and Billy the Kid (Orchestral Suite), utilizing cowboy songs as germinal material.

Although Copland grew up in Brooklyn, in what he called a "drab neighborhood", as a young man he spent several summer vacations in Texas. I have been unable to confirm this entirely, but one music lover I know recalls a New Yorker article from the 50's telling of these vacations. Although Copland's parents were from Lithuania, the recollection goes that his maternal grandmother somehow ended up there. Ergo, Copland's feel for the American West was not just based on the imaginings of a city kid, but on real experiences on a western ranch!

The CD also contains El Salón Mexico, inspired by a visit to a Mexican dance hall as an adult; Danzón Cubano; Quiet City, written for a play by Irwin Shaw; and a delightful piece called Down a Country Lane.

Disc 2 kicks off with the original version of Appalachian Spring, written for dancer Martha Graham. Copland's scoring is so intimate simply because there was a very small orchestra pit at the Library of Congress where the premiere took place. There is a great deal of interesting material in this chamber version that didn't end up in the version for full-sized orchestra. Also on the second disc is a delightful montage of rehearsal moments for the recording. It's fascinating to hear what Copland tells the musicians as he instructs them how it should be played... "a little more American-ish here, ladies and gentlemen." Rounding out Volume 1 is Nonet for Strings.

Volume 2: Chamber Music and Rarities
Sony 89326

A Copland Celebration, Volume 2Disc 1 consists of chamber works: Vitebsk: Study on a Jewish Theme for Piano Trio and 3 other items. Disc 2, however, was the real shocker for me. After years of dragging around a coveted and crumbling 5-inch reel of tape with the mono performance of A Lincoln Portrait (also originally a CSO commission), narrated by Carl Sandburg, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Andre Kostalanetz, here I found a remarkably clean recording of the same performance IN STEREO! Hands down the best performance ever done of the work… From Charlton Heston to Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, even Adlai Stevenson, who could top the poet laureate of America and author of a definitive biography of Lincoln? Sandburg almost sings the texts that Copland chose for the piece.

Next comes a rather knotty performance of Copland's settings of 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson with mezzo-soprano Martha Lipton and Copland playing the piano part. What jagged screeching! But, maybe it will grow on me I thought. Also Old American Songs, Books 1 & 2 in mono from a 1952 recording with William Warfield and Copland as accompanist. Cool. Volume 2 ends with excerpts from Billy the Kid in an arrangement and performance by pianist Lukas Foss (two previously unreleased).

Volume 3: Vocal and Choral Works
Sony 89329

A Copland Celebration, Volume 3The first disc opens with Old American Songs, again with Warfield, but this time in stereo and in the full orchestral setting. Now came the ear opener... again, the 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson, but with soprano Adele Addison and Copland at the keyboard. What a difference! What grated on the ear becomes delicate and transparent, a sheer delight and a first CD release.

Next up, In the Beginning, with Mildred Miller sounding a lot better, along with The New England Conservatory Chorus and Copland conducting. Disc 2 of Volume 3 is devoted entirely to an abridged version of Copland's opera in three acts, The Tender Land, with some wonderful soloists (Norman Treigle among them). WGUC often plays "The Promise of Living" from the opera, but in an orchestral version. Hearing it for a change with the rich vocal lines for which it was written is a total pleasure. Astute listeners will recognize the melody as coming from "Zion's Walls", one of the Old American Songs sung earlier in the series by William Warfield.

All I can say is buy and live with these recordings, and you will have a firm foundation in the wonderful music of Aaron Copland.

Worth the Search

Celluloid Copland
Eos Orchestra
Jonathon Sheffer, conductor
Telarc 80583

Celluloid CoplandAlso highly recommended is Celluloid Copland: World Premiere Film Music, with the Eos Orchestra, Jonathon Sheffer conducting (Telarc 80583). Here are offered several unusual pieces: the seven-part From Sorcery to Science, written for a giant marionette show tracing the history of pharmacology from the Chinese Medicine Man through The Alchemist and African Voodoo priest to the modern scientist (the film extolled the virtues of Ex-Lax!); also music for The City; The Cummington Story; and The North Star.

In the notes for the Telarc CD, Sheffer writes:

"That a gay, Jewish boy from Brooklyn could go to Paris and study and then come home and compose works that defined a new mainstream by capturing the unique quality of yearning and energy that resonate with our diverse culture is remarkable."

To purchase Celluloid Copland, visit the Eos Orchestra website at eosorchestra.org.

Buy the three-volume A Copland Celebration on Sony and Celluloid Copland on Telarc, and you'll be well on your way to becoming a Copland expert.

Links

The Aaron Copland Collection
The Library of Congress celebrated Copland's centennial in 2000 with a spectacular online collection of manuscripts, writings, photos and more.

Copland House
Aaron Copland's home in Westchester County, New York has been preserved as a historic site.

Influential Figures of the 1930s
Features an excellent biography of Copland.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.


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