It is difficult to believe that Aaron Copland (1900-1990), one of the pioneers and ultimately, icons of American music, passed away more than 26 years ago. Copland went to Paris in the 1920s for advanced compositional training, but he didn’t really discover his voice until he returned home and looked closely at his roots. From that keen analysis came music that was truly American. As Copland was creating classical music inspired by his American roots, George Gershwin was coming at his American roots from the pop side, and the two musicians arrived at almost the same place at almost the same time.
For Gershwin, it was Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Porgy and Bess (1934), and for Copland, it was Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944). All this new music was rooted in American jazz and folk music, and the cultural life that went with them. Gershwin died at the early age of 38 before he had begun to realize his full potential. Copland lived to be 90 and wrote music in every conceivable style and genre. Copland began it all and contributed mightily to the growth of a uniquely American music nearly all the way through the Twentieth Century. It can be truly said that he changed the world.
On this new Naxos recording, we have the ballet Appalachian Spring, one of Copland’s classic scores, paired with an almost completely unknown ballet score, dating from ten years earlier (1934). Copland had returned from Paris and was trying to make a living as a full-time composer during the height of the Depression, when Chicago-based dancer and choreographer Ruth Page asked him to write a score for Hear Ye! Hear Ye! a story about a murder in a Chicago nightclub. The job would pay Copland $250, and at the time he was happy to get it.
For Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Copland produced nearly 35 minutes of music, consisting of 18 movements — much of it chase music and busy music one might associate with the music track for a cartoon — none of which lasted more than four minutes. The score was cleverly crafted, with lively rhythms, some derived from popular dance music of the time, and colourful orchestration. It was cheeky too; Copland used distorted versions of the National Anthem in both the first and last movements. Given the narrative of the ballet, there was probably some social criticism intended here.
Hear Ye! Hear Ye! was a rather cynical legal drama, set in a Chicago courtroom. During a murder trial, three witnesses give completely different accounts of what happened. There are three suspects: a female dancer, a jealous chorus girl and an unhinged man in the audience at the night club. In the end, the jury convicts all three of them!
Shortly after the premiere of Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, Copland withdrew the score and declared it a failure — perhaps rightly so; that said, some of the music is clearly charming and entertaining and a suite drawn from the complete score might have a future in the concert hall.
Leonard Slatkin, who has long been in the forefront of American conductors seriously promoting the work of their country’s composers, has always conducted Copland’s music with great authority and that is certainly the case in this recording. Under his direction, the orchestra responds with fine playing.
Slatkin has led the Detroit Symphony through some very tough economic times and somehow managed to make it even better than it was when he took it over. The 2017-2018 season will be his 10th and final year as its music director, and he will be a tough act to follow. In his final season, he is conducting thirteen weeks of programs including a concert performance of Puccini’s opera Turandot, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, five French programs and eight world premieres. Slatkin also writes an excellent monthly conductor’s blog.
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