John Wilson Gives Rare Copland An Even Rarer Hearing

15/06/2017

Copland: BBC Philharmonic / John Wilson (conductor). BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 14.6.2017. (RBa)

Aaron Copland – An Outdoor Overture (1938); Dance Symphony (1922-1925); Symphony No.1 (1928); Statements (1934)

Few if any conductors today accommodate the repertoire’s far extremes as naturally as John Wilson. He is greatly in demand for his revivals of music from the shows and cinema. At the same time, he has been at the forefront of the British music scene and of the works of Aaron Copland. The two worlds—popular and serious—did not intersect much in this concert, although An Outdoor Overture is certainly catchy. Let us hope that Wilson finds an excuse for reviving Copland’s irresistible opera-cum-upmarket-musical The Tender Land.

In the accessible Overture syncopation, memorable ideas and high spirits are the order of the day. The work was written to a commission from the High School of Music and Art in New York City. Its outgoing ways and youthful zest place it alongside works such as Moeran’s Overture to a Masque and Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony. The orchestra delivered as they always do (there had been an open rehearsal the previous morning). They revelled in the incident-rich writing from that jog-trot ostinato surmounted by a gloriously relaxed and liquid-toned trumpet solo to the “morse” punctuating xylophone and some silky slinky violin phrases. The work perhaps picks up on world conflict to come, for the final pages are imbued with energy, heroism and conflict ahead.

Towards the end of the concert, Wilson turned to the audience and made the point that Copland’s music is in two categories and that Statements was not of the type that would fall into the listener’s lap. While we are perhaps used to works of the 1960s such as Connotations and Inscape being hard-going, the other three works in this afternoon concert were far from immediately welcoming. Just goes to show that Copland’s music of the 1920s and 1930s was not written for instant ingratiation.

The Dance Symphony added two harps, celesta and piano to the Overture‘s orchestral complement. Soft uncertainties, tender and tentative, predominate among a canvas of subtle dissonance. Pirouetting woodwind and slowly drifting textures suggest Copland had an affection for Ravel’s orchestration. Melody is subservient to transparency of texture, yet once or twice the music reminded me of Constant Lambert’s Music for Orchestra. This Symphony is a largely ruminative work, heavy with nepenthe and—but for Copland’s more transparent orchestration—rather like Griffes’s Pleasure Dome. What the Dance Symphony has to do with dance or symphony I do not know. It is just a title on which to hang an imaginative piece of strange impressionism.

Symphony No.1 (1928) is a version for orchestra only of the 1924 Organ Symphony. The already large orchestra was joined by five more French Horns—making nine in total—and a saxophone. A bleak and cold first movement with a notable viola solo (Copland appears to have been partial to the instrument) preceded a movement in which syncopation is indulged by piano and oboe. This proceeds to what I can only call a crescendo of convulsions. It is no wonder that one of the French horn players, while not playing, held her hands over her ears at various points when not delivering part of the imposing clamour. Aggressive intensity grips this work and from it a sense of victory is finally wrested.

Statements, briefly introduced by John Wilson after a ten-minute interval, is in six short movements. The titles remind me of those chosen by John Foulds for his Essays in the Modes. Copland’s are Military, Cryptic, Dogmatic, Subjective, Jingo and Prophetic. I see that Virgil Thomson wrote of this work as “a manly bouquet, fresh and sweet and sincere and frank and straightforward.” It is the toughest, most dissonant and most wispily orchestrated of all the works heard here. Military is riven with protest yet manages to sound like a bell carillon. Cryptic is melancholy, suggestive of a water-colour at one moment and a charcoal sketch the next. Dogmatic is stabbingly vituperative. Leader Yuri Torchinsky’s ending of a phrase with an almost anti-magnetic bouncing away of the bow from the sounding string nicely echoed the mood. Subjective suggested a nocturnal city scene—an Edward Hopper painting in sound. It has some of the tenderness found in the Outdoor Overture. Jingo was notable for the woodwind’s creak and gurgle. It peters out rather than ends. Prophetic runs the gamut with a querulous theme, brutal conflict, a long trumpet solo and a pre-echo of Copland’s famous Fanfare. It ends in a peaceful exhalation and the tam-tam softly struck as if mysteries are about to be revealed.

Wilson, who used a baton throughout, knows this fine orchestra well and they respond to his unambiguously flagged gestures and general conducting style without holding back.

This orchestra and conductor are engaged with Chandos in what amounts to a Copland Edition, of which a pair of discs, Vol.1 and Vol.2, has already been issued. This concert signals another disc.

Rob Barnett

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