Copland the Modernist

Author: 
Edward Seckerson

Copland the Modernist

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
  • Orchestral Variations
  • Short Symphony (No. 2)
  • Symphonic Ode

According to Virgil Thompson, jazz was Aaron Copland’s “one wild oat”. Maybe, but he sowed it with a will – and others reaped. Page after page of Music for the Theatre and its first cousin, the 1926 Piano Concerto, featured here, read like the blueprints for symphonic dance to come. Bernstein’s On the Town began here. Concert jazz with attitude, sinewy, street-smart, strident, dislocated, blowsy, bumping, grinding, shimmying like everyone’s sister Kate. But Copland arrived first, and middle America (which had mentally drawn a line under Gershwin in that regard) was taken aback – temporarily. An erstwhile succes de scandale became ‘the best roar from the roaring twenties’.
Well, at least one audacious enough to subdue the MGM lion on the opening gambit stakes. It’s a corker, this opening. A bold proclamation passed between trumpets and trombones, a ‘fanfare for...’; but before you can finish the sentence, a dramatic cut to the wide shot: a glorious lyric effusion, its sights set on yet another gleaming skyline. Brave new world or lonely town? The quizzical solo piano isn’t entirely sure, but the yearning grows: rhapsody in blue. Aren’t they all? But as muted clarinets take us in deeper, and deeper, the piano player shucks the cigarette, flicks the wrist, mindful of something snappy; snappy, as in fractured and slightly tipsy. Garrick Ohlsson kicks into this rhythm-bending mood-swing with terrific aplomb, and the San Francisco Symphony stretch every sinew to get their long limbs co-ordinated. Tilson Thomas has them well blooded in the ways of this music: it’s slick, it’s tight, but it still retains that sense of wilful precariousness. One last view of the skyline, and it’s all over.
Copland, ‘the modernist’, alludes to skylines a great deal here. The word ‘sheer’ is always springing to mind – long, tall brilliance; shining surfaces, all height and angularity. It’s hard to imagine that the Orchestral Variations were ever laid down in anything but orchestral terms, their sonority and harmony stretched from top to bottom of the score in spare, spacey chords. Copland’s very particular brand of rhetoric. And then you remember that in its ground-breaking piano original it was as if the keyboard itself had been surrealistically elongated. It has the look of a modern metropolis in sound, this music: lean, clean, oblique. Why, even the beautiful and remote slow movement of the Short Symphony is rural Copland with inner-city tensions.
But let me direct you to the tallest of these particular edifices – because I honestly don’t anticipate a better view of it. Symphonic Ode – Copland’s first big orchestral piece after the Piano Concerto – proceeds onwards and upwards in sky-scraping, octave-leaping tower blocks of sound. It’s so very much a young man’s America, alternately monolithic and toughly contrapuntal. A jazzy hint of misbegotten adolescence, a reflective heart – with solo oboe (exquisitely attended here) lending a refinement so well nursed by Nadia Boulanger – and a tremendous conclusion as proud and implacable as the US Constitution itself. A couple of sensational modulations, and MTT’s San Francisco horns are quite literally reaching for the sky. Because there is no place to go but up. The performance knows just how good it is – and that’s a fact. Deep-set, blockbusting recording. A winner.'

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