Conventional wisdom about Aaron Copland is that he is America‘s best “serious” composer so far. Already, however, we’re in trouble; that term “serious” is part of the arts vocabulary rendered meaningless by contemporary realities. What, for example, is the current workable antonym of “serious,” at a time when the music of Gershwin, Ellington — even Bernstein, Coltrane and the Beatles — shows up in scholarly articles and Ph.D. seminars? Let‘s leave it at this, however shaky the ground: Aaron Copland has composed the best American music (so far, please remember) principally aimed at performance in concert halls and opera houses where audiences listen in silence and applaud (or cheer, or boo) only at the end. You notice I didn’t say “greatest.”
He is very much of a presence these days, since his 100th birthday occurs this week. (Among this year‘s anniversary guys, Bach has also fared well; Ernst Krenek and Kurt Weill less well.) Before last week’s Philharmonic concert — an event rendered vivid by the leadership of associate conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya — there was a panel on Copland‘s music in which all the familiar terms were trotted out: modernist, populist, atonal, crossover. Attempts were made to cram Copland’s 70 or so creative years into pigeonholes: the Americana stuff of the ‘40s as retribution for the dissonances of earlier days, the 12-tone stuff of the ’60s as the forgivable sins of old age.
It doesn‘t quite work that way. Part of the marvel of Copland is the central body of style he developed in his early days, built upon with the inventions and insights of later times but never consciously abandoned. The Philharmonic concert included the Symphonic Ode, which Copland composed in 1927–29 and cleaned up in a few orchestral details in 1955: a big work in several sections, for large orchestra. It is generally regarded as a relic of Copland’s bad-boy early days, although other works from the time, the jazz-permeated Piano Concerto and Music for the Theatre — which I‘ll get to in a minute — are anything but bad. The Ode is not, in truth, a work on a level with those two masterpieces; it is, among other things, too long for its length. What struck me, however, was how full this journeyman work was of later, better-known Copland: the throbbing strings and syncopated explosions, for example, that clearly foreshadowed a most unlikely progeny, El Salon Mexico.
The Philharmonic program also included smaller, later Copland: a suite of excerpts from his film scores, wispy until the final segment, the “Threshing Machines” episode from Of Mice and Men, which is what everyone who remembers the film at all remembers best; and five of the Old American Songs nicely sung by Grant Youngblood without the cuteness some singers feel obliged to invoke (e.g., at the Hollywood Bowl last summer). It ended with Appalachian Spring — not the 35-minute ballet in its original scoring for the 15-member pit band that was all Martha Graham could afford at the time, but the 22-minute orchestral suite that Copland, in his wisdom, drew from the whole work and refashioned for concert use. If there is other music that better translates simple, unsophisticated joyousness, I haven’t come across it. If there is a more convincing testimonial to the power of pure diatonic harmony to bring tears to the eyes of a hard-boiled critic, sitting among cell phones and a heavy-breathing concert audience, than the final minutes of this music, I haven‘t come across that, either.
I had forgotten, I have to confess, about Music for the Theatre — what a vital, exuberant work it was. Perhaps I never knew, in fact, since I grew up with the old Howard Hanson recording that had nothing of the raw energy and the sheer delight of the performance under Harth-Bedoya that concluded last week’s Green Umbrella concert (the first of the season‘s series, by the way, which have now been cut back from seven to six to a paltry five). Here is the 25-year-old Copland, just back from his years at the Boulangerie, full of bright new knowledge of what was making the musical world go around in 1925 — jazz, Kurt Weill, Schoenberg, Stravinsky — and bursting to put it all to use. In this one stunning work — huge ideas beautifully shaped for a 20-piece theater-size orchestra — he did just that. No composer ever announced his own arrival as vividly, as arrogantly, as Copland in this piece; the glorious reading at Zipper Auditorium (the Umbrella’s new home) proclaimed that all those initial strengths remain undiminished.
They remain undiminished, as well, in the work that began the program, the Sextet that Copland had fashioned from his 1933 Short Symphony after the formidable Stokowski and Koussevitzky had given up trying to cope with its rhythms — kid stuff to today‘s conductors, as the recent Michael Tilson Thomas recording easily proves. This is muscle-flexing music, its pristine arrogance still intact after 60-plus years. I must say, I prefer the Sextet version, through which cold, bracing breezes blow unimpeded by drums and brasses. David Howard’s eloquent clarinet the other night was probably what seduced me into feeling that way.
At the County Museum a couple of weeks before, that precious series known as the Monday Evening Concerts also began with Copland, with performers from the Copland House — the composer‘s home in the Hudson Valley, now maintained as a study center — in an elegant program of chamber music including the Piano Quartet, most successful of the “atonal” works, and the searing Vitebsk Trio, a tribute to its creator’s ancestry. Pianist Michael Boriskin and flutist Paul Lustig Dunkel, the center‘s co-directors, were among the players, obviously collaborating in a labor of love, in music that deserved no less.