Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Virtual Aaron Copland Concert

After I read the dead tree version of William Robin's April 12, 2016 "New York Times" article "Asking Whether Copland’s Abstruse Works are the Exception or the Rule," I wanted to hear the musical pieces referenced. In counterpoint to Ms. Baum's lament:

I found it convenient that the online version hyperlinks most of the pieces referenced in  the article. I decided to create my own virtual concert and chose to embed different artist versions from ubiquitous youtube selections.

"When Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic visited 'The Late Show With Stephen Colbert' last month, it was only natural that they performed Aaron Copland’s 'Fanfare for the Common Man'” (1942)'"

Fanfare for the Common Man, New York Philharmonic, James Levine standard orchestral version:

Emerson, Lake and Palmer aka ELP electronic version:

"But when Copland’s music graced a CBS broadcast a half-century ago, it was in an entirely different idiom. For the 1962 televised gala celebrating the opening of the Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center — now David Geffen Hall — the composer provided his first 12-tone piece for orchestra, the snarling and cacophonous 'Connotations.'"

Copland: Connotations For Orchestra : Intenso - Drammatico · New York Philharmonic Orchestra · Leonard Bernstein

"At intermission, the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, approached him. Stunned, she simply said: 'Oh, Mr. Copland. Oh, Mr. Copland.' A nationwide audience of millions watched the broadcast, and both the orchestra and the network were subsequently inundated with letters from viewers outraged by this densely avant-garde music."

I'm afraid I share the outraged viewers Philistinism at Copland's avant-garde-ism.

"The question will be raised once more on Wednesday, when Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall in a triptych of Copland’s thornier works: the Piano Concerto (1926)"

Aaron Copland: "Piano Concerto" Bennett Lerner, pianist Zubin Mehta, conductor New York Philharmonic

Aaron Copland: the Orchestral Variations (1957) Michael Tilson Thomas San Francisco Symphony:

an arrangement of the Copland’s 1930 Piano Variations Boston Symphony Chamber Players

the serial “Inscape” (1967), Copland’s last major piece - The American Symphony Orchestra diretta da Leon Botstein

I agree with Stephen Jablonsky youtube comment:

"A much more user-friendly piece than 'Connotations'. It uses the modern idioms in very Coplandesque ways. For me it is as if 'Billy the Kid' were translated into another language. The sadness and the longing is still there but the landscape has changed and we find ourselves in an alien land."

Going off a tangent from the "New York Times" article in case you want to comapre and contrast "Connotations" with "Billy the Kid" "Listening Guide: Copland's Billy the Kid" Philharmonia Orchestra (London, UK)

Copland: Billy the Kid - Ballet Suite Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra

Back to 'Inscape', from Barry Gurley youtube comment:

"I love how Copland's lyricism comes through no matter what idiom he employs. Even in the 12-tone style, you hear is essential personality-traits: declamation, tenderness and a pared-down simplicity. Beautiful."
The "New York Times" also discusses Copland's shift to the 12-tone system:

"Copland first began exploring 12-tone writing in 1950, in the shadow of Cold War paranoia and after the New Deal-era Americana of his score for 'Billy the Kid,' like the New Deal itself, had fallen out of favor. Never mind that music in that vein is now a shorthand for a patriotism as blameless as a bald eagle and has been paraphrased for campaign ads for Ronald Reagan and Rick Perry (incongruous, given Copland’s political proclivities)."

In case you wondered what is the 12 tone system, I don't really know. My guess was that it was a shift from standard major and minor scales that encompassed 7 tones of "The Sound of Music" 'Do-Re-Mi" fame:

Hence, the simplest example, playing C Major on the keyboard, just requires playing all the ivory keys from C (Do/Doe) to B (Ti/Tea) = 7

I then figured 12 tones would entail playing all the ivory keys (7) plus + all the sharp/flat ebony keys (5) = 12 tones, but not certain how this Common Core math translates musically, except as an homage to Stevie Wonder and Sir Paul McCartney 1980s collaboration:

The Encyclopedia Britannica article just made me more confused:

The new unifying principle in composition would then arise from the particular order given to a collection of the 12 tones, an order that would be different for each composition. The basic order for any one composition came to be known as its basic set, its 12-tone row, or its 12-tone series, all of which terms are synonymous. The basic set for Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet (1924) is E♭–G–A–B–C♯–C–B♭–D–E–F♯–A♭–F; for his String Quartet No. 4 (1936) it is D–C♯–A–B♭–F–E♭–E–C–A♭–G–F♯–B.

The basic set is not a theme, for it has no specific shape, rhythm, or loudness. It is a backbone, a musical idea that permeates the composition in which it is used. Because of the various principles of composing and manipulating the basic set recognized by Schoenberg and others, it is not often possible nor even desirable to hear the basic set when the composition is performed. This situation has led many people to attack Schoenberg’s method as unmusical and as mathematical madness. Such views seem unjustifiable, because, as Schoenberg pointed out, his method specifies only a tiny fraction of the total nature of a composition—certainly no more than composing with tonality specifies.

As far as I can tell, Copland's new musical style is being equated to abstract modern painting to avoid anti-Communist censors:

"Copland’s history as a leftist intellectual — in the heady years of the 1930s, he once wrote a song titled 'Into the Streets May First'"

 — brought him to Senator McCarthy’s attention. In 1953 a performance of his 'Lincoln Portrait,' in honor of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration, was canceled when a congressman declared it Communist propaganda. 
Leonard Bernstein conducts the National Symphony (Washington, D.C.) in a concert celebrating Aaron Copland's 80th birthday (1980) featuring Copland's "Lincoln Portrait", with Copland as the narrator.

Soon afterward, Copland was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The fraught political climate may have pushed him toward an abstract language distant from one marked by populist (and potentially Communist) sentiment.

Simultaneously, Modernism was on the rise. Copland was not one to fall behind the musical curve, and in 1949 he visited Paris to witness the radical avant-gardism of the youthful Mr. Boulez firsthand.  At a party, Mr. Boulez played his fiery, atomized Second Sonata; Copland responded by performing the severe Piano Variations, then two decades old, as if to declare that he had done that kind of thing first.

"The San Francisco Symphony concert juxtaposes Copland’s early and late experiments with Modernism. In this presentation, the sound that made Copland famous — the open-prairie simplicity of 'Billy the Kid' and 'Appalachian Spring' — might represent a blip in the composer’s artistic development. 'You could look at the music for which he is best known as an interlude in the middle,' Mr. Thomas said."
Appalachian Spring, Orchestral Suite, written in 1944-1945 Composer: Aaron Copland - Orchestra: Ulster Orchestra - Conductor: Thierry Fischer

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