S&H Concert Review

An American Portrait: Aaron Copland BBC Symphony & Concert Orchestras / Leonard Slatkin Barbican Hall 10 - 12 November 2000 (RW)

Even for those of us too young to remember Aaron Copland as an active composer, his presence on the contemporary music scene, and memories of him as a conductor - not least his 80th birthday concert with the LSO - make it strange to think that this year marks the centenary of a now 'historical' figure. The popularity of his music has not abated, whilst the opportunity now afforded to hear his output as a diverse whole has meant works once considered 'difficult' or uncharacteristic can now be judged from a more inclusive perspective. In all respects then, Leonard Slatkin's Copland weekend could not have been more timely.

The opening concert, - by some distance the most diverse - began almost at the end, with Copland's last major large scale work. Inscape (1967) concludes the line of works, begun in the mid-1950s, which admit serial and other 'modern' elements into his soundworld. As Copland himself said, this was to do with 'freshening up' his musical language, and in no way represents a stylistic capitulation. This 13 minute study in dissonant sonorities and angular polyphony is not comfortable listening by any means, but typical Copland in the harmonic twists and in an ending that fulfils the music's emotional trajectory, while leaving its deeper tensions unresolved. Looking back to Ruggles and forward to the later Carter, Inscape is worthy of frequent revival, especially when performed with such understated intensity as here.

The abrasive side of Copland was further represented by the Piano Variations, a touchstone of pre-war American modernism, played with grit if not exactly relish by Marc-André Hamelin, who then joined the orchestra for the Piano Concerto. This was the 26-year old Copland's first attempt to cultivate an American concert idiom through explicit use of jazz and blues archetypes. The result is enjoyable, even invigorating, but seldom memorable. The opening slow movement has a feeling of Gershwin filtered through Rachmaninov (unusually full scoring too), while the second movement alternates between stylised solo syncopation and raucous orchestral climaxes that the young Bernstein must have found irresistible. Hamelin willingly entered the fray and Slatkin clearly enjoyed himself, but this remains a period piece; worth revival principally on occasions like this.

The second half featured a brief but characteristic suite drawn by Arnold Freed from the 1948 score to William Wyler's melodrame The Heiress, and a rare outing for the complete Billy the Kid ballet. This remains the most resourceful and involving of Copland's three major dance works, though the 12 minutes or so of additional music seem barely justified in the concert hall. The first additional sequence, between the 'Mexican Dance' and 'Card Game', is surely primarily for dancing, while that describing Billy's imprisonment and escape is all too flaccid in invention. Slatkin conducted with a keen ear for musical imagery and the BBCSO gave it some heft, but there's a deeper embodiment of the American spirit in this score, which proved elusive.

Saturday's concert brought the BBC Concert Orchestra into action at The Barbican; an orchestra generally banished to Golders Green Hippodrome, they acquitted themselves with considerable flair. The programme was chosen to illustrate the practical side of Copland's music-making, though playing the Musics, for Radio and the Movies, back to back did neither score any real favours. The former is a continuous sequence in Copland's pastoral-nationalist vein (making the shadow of Vaughan Williams less surprising); the latter collates passages from his late '30s film scores, with 'Grovers Corners' from Our Town the undoubted highlight (the extended concert piece from this score is a gem and might have worked better in context). Both were upstaged (no half-pun intended) by Music for the Theatre, Copland's mid-'20s evocation of imaginary dramas, scintillatingly scored for a sophisticated class of pit band. Slatkin's characterised the music's moods, irony and sleaze giving way to an urban melancholy, to a nicety.

Xxxxxx The Second Hurricane is not a work Copland will be remembered by. Not that this 1936 high-school opera isn't expertly and sympathetically devised for amateur performers; only that the scenario and manner of presentation have dated to a degree where the work now has little musical or dramatic relevance. The performance, by singers and choirs from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, worked hard to inject some sparkle into this tale of adventure and the co-operative spirit, but 47 minutes seemed a long time passing. Better to have transferred this capable effort to the Guildhall School as a fringe event; leaving the second half free for further concert realisations from Copland's film score. The suite from The Red Pony and the scandalously neglected Music for a Great City would have been strong contenders: moreover, the BBC Concert Orchestra were clearly in the mood for the challenge.

The final concert was devoted to a (barely) semi-staged performance of The Tender Land, This was Copland's only full-length opera; though it took major revision before the work reached its final hour-and-three quarters. This is hardly a dramatic work in the conventional operatic sense, no doubt reflecting its origins in televised presentation and small-scale formal outlay. Yet to write the work off as a failed attempt to recreate an idealised Americana, in the midst of McCarthyite intrigues, would be to miss the point entirely. Copland is at pains to ensure that this 'rites of passage' study of an adolescent girl, on the brink of womanhood and realising the restrictiveness, as well as the security, of small-town life in the process, is subtle and effective on its own terms. If the music scales no great heights or plumbs no great depths, it underlines the tensions and striving toward communication of its protagonists; with a sure sense of their dramatic motivation and intimate self-awareness.

Slatkin clearly believes in the score, and inspired the singers to comparable commitment. Nancy Gustafson was in fine voice as Laurie, poised to make her way in the world, while William Burden was eloquent as the drifter Martin, who acts as the unwitting catalyst in her reaching out for independence. Mary Ann McCormick could have projected Ma Moss's motherly trepidation with greater insistence, but was affecting in the compassion which surfaces as she comes to understand her children in a new, more reasoned light. The BBC Singers made the most of their second act party scene, and this was undoubtedly the right work to round off the weekend.

Only the beginning of Slatkin's BBC tenure, of course, and plenty more Copland for him to revive. In addition to those mentioned above, Statements and the ballet score Dance Panels urgently require re-evaluation, while on the basis of the energetic if rough-edged account he gave at the South Bank earlier this year, Slatkin could well vindicate Connotations once and for all. A few words by way of setting the scene, such as he ably provided at the first two of these concerts, and the audience would be well on its way. For now, his authoritative, full-length accounts of the three popular ballets, recorded in St Louis back in the mid-1980s, has recently been reissued [EMI Double Forte CZS5 73653-2], and underlines his devotion to the quintessential American composer.

Richard Whitehouse

Seen&Heard is part of Music on the Web(UK) Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web