Absolutely Aaron

Fan fare: Stanley Drucker playing and Kurt Masur conducting Copland during the New York Philharmonic's tribute.Photo: Chris Lee

Not many composers enjoy uncritical acceptance – I even know a few Mozart haters – but one universally admired figure does come to mind, an American no less: Aaron Copland, whose centennial occurs next year. Copland wanted to find ways to write music that would include everyone, and he pretty much succeeded, as the New York Philharmonic’s recently completed celebration made clear to all, except possibly one or two cranks. In three weeks of orchestral concerts, programs of chamber works, pre-concert preludes, and panel discussions with music, the orchestra managed to cram in practically everything Copland wrote between 1921 and 1973. Perhaps some were lucky enough to hear it all. If so, they were rewarded with a fresh perspective on a composer of astonishing versatility, one whose best work speaks to high- and lowbrows alike without condescending to either.

It would take a book to describe how he did it over a long lifetime of reaching out, not only with his music but also through tireless proselytizing and networking for American composers in general. That book has just been written, and with considerable eloquence (Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man by Howard Pollack; Henry Holt) but all of the Philharmonic events I could attend added indispensable musical examples. One of the most instructive as well as enjoyable concerts was devoted to four of Copland’s ballet scores. Each came at a different period in the composer’s life, and each illustrates a different aspect of a style that remained fixed in its basic expressive goals, despite the diverse technical methods he used to achieve them.

Appalachian Spring (1943-44) is perhaps Copland’s best known work. It is certainly the most tuneful, but every time I hear it what impresses most is how fresh and new it always sounds. The unconventional treatment of familiar harmonies, the clarity of the contrapuntal details, the exactly positioned orchestral sonorities – not one element is out of place or irrelevant to the overall expressive idea and compositional progress of the piece. Dance Panels (1959) finds Copland thinking in more abstract but no less inventive terms, discovering new ways of ordering a tangy sound world that remains recognizably his alone. The musical discourse is so absorbing that it is easy to miss how the various panels have been devised to represent stylizations of seven different waltz types, so cleverly altered that their origins are almost completely disguised.

The other two scores, each a rarity, hark back to Copland’s youth. The Dance Symphony (1929) is a reworking of material originally written for Grohg, a ballet whose flamboyant scenario deals with a wild psychosexual figure straight out of Nosferatu. The sensational, sadomasochistic, gender-bending subject matter inspired the young composer to indulge in some uncharacteristic flights of experimental fantasy, from polyrhythms to microtonality, and the results apparently made a Copland fan out of Igor Stravinsky. Even more obscure is the 1934 ballet Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, a satiric look at the American court system in a plot that deals with the murder of a male member of a cabaret dancing team. The music shows Copland making one of his earliest excursions into America’s pop-folk idioms, recurring trips that would later yield some of his most inspired work. The performances may not have been consistently ideal – Markand Thakar, Leslie B. Dunner, George Hanson, and Miguel Harth-Bedoya shared the conducting duties – but the program itself was a revelation.

It is always useful to be reminded of the severe, laying-down-the-law Copland and contrast that composer with the more familiar genial populist, and the Philharmonic’s festival was especially edifying in this respect. The grandly scaled gestures of the Symphonic Ode (1927-29) and the meditative, serially organized Inscape (1967), both played on the festivals opening concert, have inevitably found fewer fans than such accessible down-home scores as Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, and Billy the Kid. But for those willing to make the effort, the invigorating rhetoric of the Ode and the mystical inwardness of Inscape can seem even more personal and piercingly immediate.

No listening barriers, real or imagined, were on the program conducted by John Adams – a generous salute to Copland by that composer, since it meant Adams had to miss the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s two concert performances of his own opera, Nixon in China. A sizzling rendition of the 1926 Piano Concerto by Garrick Ohlsson was the concert’s centerpiece, a score that pretty much says the last word about that era’s obsession with symphonic jazz. Opera was one area where success eluded Copland, although the purely orchestral Party Scene from The Tender Land made a pleasant concert opener and the violent mood swings of the five-part Music for the Theatre created its own easily imagined urban drama. The music of Latin America was another of the composers enthusiasms that inspired some of his most engaging light fare, with the the Danzon Cubano and Three Latin American Sketches representing two of the best. Even Copland wondered if he could make musical capital out of traditional cowboy songs, but he did in Billy the Kid – a perfect finale, guaranteed to send audiences home happy.

Absolutely Aaron