Aaron Copland turned 90 on November 14, and the event has been widely and
wisely celebrated. It is doubtful, however, whether a more loving and
imaginative tribute has been staged anywhere than this week’s Monday Evening
Concert at the County Museum. The turnout was one of the largest in the series’ history; nearly every seat
in the drab Bing Auditorium was filled. The crowd had come for Copland, of
course, but also for Leo Smit, the great composer, pianist and toiler in the
cause of new music, now officially retired but still glowing with his
wonderful energy. Smit was the pianist throughout the concert: first in
Copland’s Piano Quartet (with string players Elizabeth Baker, Valerie Dimond
{cq} and Roger Lebow), then as partner to soprano Rosalind Rees in a bouquet
of songs by Copland himself and 18 of Copland’s close friends, and finally
with pianist Adam Stern in a two-piano version of Copland’s “Billy the Kid”
ballet. It was an evening full of rewards. Copland’s 1950 Piano Quartet isn’t often
heard; it’s a tough work, full of a rough-cut, honest beauty that demands
close listening. It represents Copland at a sort of crossroads, moving away
from the easy style of the great ballet scores and toward a denser harmonic
manner, and at the same time looking back to the gritty, dissonant works of
his early days. It is also a wonderfully brainy work, with a final slow
movement that resolves all previous problems and dies out in an angelic calm. Between the Quartet and the ballet of 12 years earlier the stylistic gap is
wide. For all the loss of instrumental color, hearing “Billy the Kid” in
Copland’s piano version makes it easy to concentrate on the hard-edged
originality of the work, its pungent harmonies, its sheer bravado in, for
example, ramming melodic lines together in separate and unrelated keys.
The song group was beautifully chosen: a set of bright, brief birthday cards,
sung with great style and exemplary diction by Rosalind Rees (wife of the
noted choral conductor, Gregg Smith). With the auditorium in darkness (why?)
it was sometimes hard to remember which song was which, but such beauties as
Virgil Thomson’s setting of Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” and Elliott
Carter’s of the Robert Frost “The Line-Gang,” were easy to identify and
hard to forget. So was David Raksin’s well-worn but still haunting “Laura”
and an unfamiliar, ravishing Leonard Bernstein song, the 1950 “My House” to
a text of his own. Performances throughout were of top-quality, but the evening’s highest
pleasure was the sight of Smit at the piano, obviously standing in for
Copland himself, having a whale of a good time and anxious to share