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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

American Classics—Old & New

Diverse works come to Pabst Theater, Turner Hall Ballroom

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When young composer Aaron Copland (1900-90) witnessed how dancer/choreographer Martha Graham turned his Piano Variations into the “very striking” ballet Dithyramb, he decided to see if they could next work collaboratively on an original stage work. Though she readily agreed, the project wouldn’t materialize for more than a decade. Copland’s working title was “Ballet for Martha,” but Graham came up with the title by which it has always been known: Appalachian Spring. Copland’s score actually isn’t “about” Appalachia or, for that matter, even the spring, but the title seemed right for the work’s mood. Only one actual American folk tune is quoted (“Simple Gifts”), but as Copland explained, it also “uses rhythms, harmonies and melodies that suggest an American ambiance,” as well as Graham’s “very personal manner that inspired the style of the music.” To most music lovers it is the orchestral suite Copland arranged from the Appalachian Spring ballet in 1945 that is familiar. Consisting of eight connected episodes, it’s widely considered Copland’s most impressive accomplishment in what he termed his “vernacular style.”

Composed nearly simultaneously is Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (1942), a restrained and noble evocation of Abraham Lincoln that uses a speaker uttering some of the president’s very own words—the climax of which is a quotation from the Gettysburg Address. Managing to be patriotic without bombast, A Lincoln Portrait is one of the most successful and oft-performed concert works that incorporates narration.

Though Copland is surely more famous, Samuel Barber (1910-81) had perhaps the most pronounced lyrical gift among American composers of the 20th century, his orchestral music in particular displaying both fine melodic lines and confident handling of large instrumental forces. Barber was still a student at the Curtis Institute when he composed his School for Scandal Overture, Op. 5 (1931), a lively and witty piece reflective of the Richard Sheridan play of its title. Seven years later he penned what has come to be his best-known work, the gravely beautiful Adagio for Strings, Op. 11. Beginning life as the slow movement of a string quartet, Barber rescored it for string orchestra, lending the piece additional emotional gravitas.

All four of the aforementioned works are on tap for the aptly named “American Classics” concert of the Festival City Symphony under maestro Monte Perkins. This concert takes place at the Pabst Theater on March 28.

Describing his 2004 work, Omnivorous Furniture, Mason Bates states that it “exists at the junction between a world of morphing electronic beats and the rich and varied textures of a chamber orchestra.” The title derives from the fact that it is “organized around several ‘omnivorous moments,’ when material previously perceived as background—the wallpaper or ‘furniture,’” he describes, “ultimately consumes the entire texture.” Bates will be on hand to perform this remarkable work in a concert with Present Music; the latter presenting Chamber Symphony (1992) by John Adams, similarly a work derived from two diverse parents—Arnold Schoenberg and 1950s Warner Brothers cartoon scores! This concert takes place in the Turner Hall Ballroom on March 27.