An American Portrait [Aaron Copland Weekend]

Piano Concerto
Music from The Heiress
“Happy Birthday”
Billy the Kid

Music for the Theatre
Prairie Journal
Music for the Movies

The Tender Land

BBC Symphony & Concert Orchestrasconducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 12 November, 2000
Venue: Barbican Hall, London [10-12 November 2000]

With a new American Principal Conductor at the helm, it came as no surprise to learn that the BBC Symphony Orchestra would be celebrating the 100th-birthday of Aaron Copland in grand style. Copland, despite a relatively slender output, is still considered to be THE voice of American music. What was confirmed as this weekend progressed was, like Stravinsky, in whichever style Copland wrote – homely American ballets, the jazz-inspired works of the ’twenties, music for young people or the clangourous serial works of his later years, the music is always instantly his. Widely spaced string chords, angular counterpoint, brittle piano-writing adding an astringent ingredient to the orchestral texture, and a refreshing, almost beguilingly innocent gift for melody – the mix is Aaron Copland, born 14 November 1900.

That this festival didn’t concentrate on well-known Copland is typical of Leonard Slatkin’s approach – no Appalachian Spring, no Rodeo, no Clarinet Concerto – indeed the only compromise to audience popularity was Billy the Kid, and this was played complete rather than in the better known Suite.

To open the weekend with such an uncompromising work as Inscape (Copland’s last major work, although written twenty years before his death) was brave indeed. In this thoroughly prepared performance Inscape proved stunning if not particularly loveable. An immediate contrast came in the form of Marc-Andre Hamelin’s excellent (solo) performance of Variations, one of Copland’s greatest works, especially when given as here with an almost Beethovenian gravity and depth. It would have been fascinating to hear the composer’s later orchestral version of this masterpiece, instead Hamelin returned to play the jazzy Piano Concerto, which I have always thought a strange piece, great fun, but its odd two-part structure always leaves me expecting more.

Copland the film composer came after the interval with music from The Heiress (1948) in a suite fashioned by Arnold Freed. As I say, I would rather have heard the Orchestral Variations, but it was interesting to hear Copland’s approach to the film medium, a marked contrast to the inflated romantic excesses of Korngold, Rozsa, Steiner and others of the same period. With a novelty in the form of Copland’s arrangement of “Happy Birthday” for Eugene Ormandy’s 70th in 1969, it was, perhaps with some relief, to the final work of the first evening which returned us to more familiar territory, Billy the Kid. As already indicated, Billy was given complete. Personally the inclusion of all the music did not make a huge difference – whatever, it is a wonderful score, which was, some odd solo contributions aside, chiefly some fluffed notes in the brass, well played. I have to say that I found the inclusion of an electric guitar something of a mystery. Although I haven’t seen the score for a long time, it apparently gives the option of a guitar or a harp. Surely amplified guitars had not seen the light of day when this work was written (1940) – quite apart from a visual surprise, the poor guitarist had to sit around to play about a dozen chords, most of which couldn’t be heard anyway. One wonders why an enterprising ballet company didn’t stage one of Copland’s ballets this year.

The most noticeable feature of the middle concert was the high standard of playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra – clearly inspired by its distinguished guest conductor these musicians played better than I have ever heard before. Music for the Theatre, by far the best piece in the programme and a very difficult score to bring off, was played with great panache, humour and sensitivity – cool wind solos, bluesy trumpets and wonderful string playing. The other works, Prairie Journal and Music for the Movies, though hardly vintage Copland, were at least of a similar performance standard. I’m not sure though it was such a good idea to programme so many short movements together (eleven in all) in the first half.

The real rarity of the whole weekend was the “play-opera for high school performance”, The Second Hurricane. It has been suggested that the librettist, one Edwin Denby, had not spoken to a child in thirty years – so to say that the libretto creaks is an understatement of epic proportions. The narration by Leonard Bernstein is equally awful – the opening “Have you ever had an adventure – a REAL adventure” would get short shrift in a school today. Having said all that, the music has a breezy, irresistible melodic charm and exuberance that made one forget the verbal downside. The performance, once again the BBCCO in top form (with a particular mention for Richard Watson’s skill on his ’musical saw’, or, if you prefer, the theremin) and students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama carried the audience away with their energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunate topical references aside to strong winds and rising floods, we all went out into the cold, wet night light of heart.

If some of the cast for the ’production’ of The Tender Land on the final evening had been in the audience for Hurricane, they might have learnt something about projection, diction and not hiding behind scores from their younger and supposedly less experienced colleagues. Acts Two and Three of The Tender Land were rather clearer (I wonder if something had been said) but hardly anything in Act One, words or music, came further than the front of the stalls. I am surprised that the unfortunate people in the circle did not give up and go home. I know the Barbican acoustic isn’t helpful, but from such experienced singers this was frankly a disgrace.

Slatkin was clearly doing his best to keep the large (too large?) orchestra down on this occasion and the composer can’t be blamed – Copland’s clear, uncluttered textures are as much in evidence in this work as anywhere else. Nancy Gustafson’s Laurie Moss had the perfect blend of innocence and quiet determination (and looked stunning!) – but her disconcerting habit of shyly looking down (acting or checking notes?) meant that much of her singing, even her touching first aria ’The world so wide’ – one of the opera’s highlights – disappeared. Mary Ann McCormick as Ma Moss was strong of voice but her words were unintelligible. The men were slightly better – especially William Burden as Martin, one of two drifters and the man that Laurie falls in love with (I had forgotten just how beautiful their rapturous love-duet is, which would not be out of place in a Broadway show). Christopher Robertson had the voice and presence to make Top (the other drifter) the memorable, slightly comic character that he is, but again because of projection, messed up his big aria in which he shocks the Moss family with tales of his exploits on his travels.

From the performance point of view, a missed chance; for the piece itself, many suggest that the story is uninteresting – true it has no death scenes, murders, revolutions, battles and the like – but its touching simplicity is all part of the charm. It’s not a “big house” opera, that was never Copland’s intention, but for smaller companies and music schools with young singers, The Tender Land is more than worth a revival. The pleasingly large audience, even allowing that they had not heard too much of it, obviously agreed.

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