Monday, June 29, 2009


The Library of Congress organised a concert to celebrate Copland’s 81st birthday in November 1981. Jan DeGaetani (1933-1990) was a staunch supporter and proponent of the contemporary repertoire and especially that of her native country – many American composers had cause to be grateful to her for her idiomatic and expressive performances. Leo Smit had worked closely with her, as well as pursuing his own polymathic interests. He was also a notable exponent of Copland’s piano music.

The recital ranged widely; piano works early (Three Moods, 1920-21) and late (Night Thoughts, 1972) and the mid period Dickinson settings, the centrepiece of the recital. To garnish the occasion still further there are some of the Old American Songs, principally the Second Set of 1952, with such old favourites emerging newly minted as Simple Gifts and At the River.

DeGaetani’s rich mezzo, well equalized throughout the scale, brings "true simplicity" to the Old American Songs, subtle in At the River (its "wrong note" pianism banishing complacency) and moving in Simple Gifts, with Smit providing the most adroitly effective of support in the rhythmically displaced piano accompaniment. He is equally convincing in the early Three Moods, originally given a French title, and according to the notes only receiving a first performance in 1981 a few months before this concert, with a dedication to Smit – though I’ve read elsewhere that Copland himself premiered them in concert at the time of their composition. The first is dissonant and fractious, the second a little glinting Debussyian affair, and the third a syncopated number with a show tune embedded in it. By way of immediate contrast Night Thoughts was composed for the 1972 Van Cliburn Piano Competition. With its widely spaced chords and slow, meditative sense of overlapping it makes an intriguing foil for the more youthfully combustible composer.

The Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, Copland’s first major vocal work, date from 1949-50. They cover a wide variety of moods and feelings, impressions and sensibilities and Copland’s settings are ones of amplification and extension of the text whilst remaining true to the very personal idiom of the poems. Thus in the first setting, Nature the gentlest mother he hints in the piano part at the pastoral, whereas the succeeding There came a wind like bugle the bell tolling and violence of the setting mirror the text’s violent unease – with DeGaetani’s downward extension on the final words exposing their dramatic finality. In The World feels dusty Copland provides a simple rocking accompaniment, a cradle song of anticipated death - elsewhere in the cycle evoking the loss and bewilderment explicit in the settings with a kind of trenchant simplicity. Sleep is supposed to be erupts with real violence, emphasized by the coldness of the acoustic, and in I felt a funeral in my brain whilst DeGaetani starts rather backward in the balance, the funereal tread in the piano leads on to wandering tonalities in the vocal line, well conveyed here, and an increasing sense of fracture and collapse. Copland’s piano accompaniments hint, suggest, elide, now spare, now furious, all the while managing to convey the myriad suggestible implications to be gleaned from the texts.

There is a charming talk, self-deprecatory and amusing, between Copland, Smit and Donald Leavitt of The Library of Congress and a delightful encore, The Little Horses. It was a memorable concert in the Coolidge Auditorium that November in 1981. Jonathan Woolf

From Old American Songs (1950-52)
1 Zion's Walls 2:14
2 At the River 2:48
3 Simple Gifts 1:52
Voice and piano

Three Moods (1920-21)
4 Embittered 1:01
5 Wistful 2:04
6 Jazzy 1:17
Piano solo

7 Night Thoughts (1972) 8:16
Piano solo

8 Conversations With Aaron Copland 3:26
With Leo Smit and Donald L. Leavitt

9 Introduction by Jan Degaetani 1:15

Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1949-50)
10 Nature, the Gentlest Mother , 4:18
11 There Came a Wind Like a Bugle 1:36
12 Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven? 1:45
13 The World Feels Dusty 1:59
14 Heart, We Will Forget Him 2:15
15 Dear March, Come In! 2:02
16 Sleep Is Suppose to Be 3:04
17 When They Come Back 2:00
18 I Felt a Funeral in My Brain 2:29
19 I've Heard an Organ Talk Sometimes 2:07
20 Going to Heaven! 2:25
21 The Chariot 4:20

22 The Little Horses (from Old American Songs, 1952) 2:33

Jan DeGaetani, mezzo-soprano and Leo Smit, piano
Recorded at the Coolidge Auditorium of The Library of Congress 14th November 1981

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


This is a superb album, largely overlooked on its release because it falls squarely into that awkward chasm between "serious" classical music and "light" film music.

John Williams conducts Copland's Red Pony suite like film music--which of course, it is--keeping the rhythms taut and the tempi precise: the "Circus March" swaggers boisterously, the "Happy Ending" skips along exuberantly. Trumpet soloist Tim Morrison makes the most of the reflective Quiet City and reprises his appearance on Born On The Fourth Of July for Williams's concert suite, arguably a better way to experience this elegiac, pastoral and affecting music than the original soundtrack.

The Reivers, from 1969, remains one of Williams's best-loved film scores: a jaunty, nostalgic slice of early Americana presented here as an extended suite with avuncular narration by Burgess Meredith (who narrated the original movie, a little-known adaptation of a William Faulkner novel starring Steve McQueen). It's delightful music, although the spoken text occasionally seems disproportionately long.

The juxtaposition of Copland and Williams on one album allows the listener to experience two complementary facets of American music, impeccably performed by the Boston Pops and vividly recorded at Symphony Hall. Leonard Slatkin's Music For Films album, on RCA, offers an excellent alternative for anyone wanting an all-Copland disc--but the real gems on this album are the two John Williams items. Mark Walker

The Red Pony
1. Morning On The Ranch (04:41)
2. The Gift (04:58)
3. Dream March (02:30)
4. Circus March (01:55)
5. Walk To The Bunkhouse (02:49)
6. Grandfather's Tale (04:47)
7. Happy Ending (03:24)

Born of the Fourth of July
8. Theme (06:21)
9. Cua Viet River, Vietnam 1968 (03:37)
10. Massapequa...the Early Days (04:06)
Tim Morrison trumpet

11. Quiet City - for Strings, Trumpet & English Horn (10:35)
Tim Morrison , trumpet Laurence Thorstenberg, English horn

12. The Reivers (18:43)
text by William Faulkner , narrated by Burgess Meredith

Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams
Recorded at Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts on February 9-10, 1990 & November 3-5, 1991