Alsop Finds Warmth—and Loneliness—in Copland’s Third

United StatesUnited States  Barber, Schumann, Copland: David Fray (piano), Cleveland Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 29.11.2013 (MSJ)

Barber: Essay No. 2
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor
Copland: Symphony No. 3

As years slip by, American composer Aaron Copland’s broad Symphony No. 3 grows in both stature and vision. The stature is obvious enough, bringing the composer’s middle period populism into an epic, though clearly American-sounding symphonic landscape. But the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance the day after Thanksgiving lucidly snapped the work’s vision into focus. As Alsop noted in her witty yet focused remarks before the symphony, in programming it, they wanted a specifically American work as a nod to that classic American holiday of feasting and family fellowship. Yet her directing of the piece went beyond those concepts to tap into not only its big-hearted warmth, but also its wide-horizon loneliness and its dangerous stubbornness.

Copland’s Third does not always come across so coherently, as its own tendency toward the big gesture can encourage conductors to gild the lily. Alsop resolutely held back the noise level of the boisterous scherzo and increasingly brawny finale, encouraging the players with her lively rhythmic gestures to channel their energy into speed and offbeat accents instead of into sheer volume. This was a particularly shrewd approach in Severance Hall, which can sound clangy and overloaded if a percussion-heavy big orchestra blares loudly. Alsop instead found many different levels of sound, so that the biggest, most floor-shaking chord was the final one.

Alsop pointed out how Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is the DNA of the symphony, and that lucid, through-line of thought made the whole piece unfold in one breath, timeless, but also unfolding in a blink of the eye. That’s an accomplishment I’ve never heard in the numerous recordings of the work I’ve encountered over the years. Copland, in two recordings he led himself, never had the podium security to make the work seem inevitable, and Alsop’s mentor, Leonard Bernstein was—for all his mastery—never one to hold back and focus on coherency. Alsop has taken the best of Copland’s clarity and Bernstein’s ferocious energy and welded it into an outstanding rendition. Her reserve toward the end of the piece counterpointed the moment of crisis in the middle of the last movement: the energy runs amok and nearly crashes the whole thing down—surely Copland’s most visionary assessment of the dark side of the American character—only to resume its forward movement, this time with the music of the common person, the Fanfare, woven in to stabilize it and give it foundation. Shostakovich wasn’t the only composer commenting on his nation’s politics in the mid-twentieth century.

But Alsop’s performance was as much poised as visionary. Having the Cleveland Orchestra certainly helps crystallize the work’s neoclassical cachet. The orchestra was impressive throughout with this complex, ever-changing music. The first violins’ playing of one high, cruelly exposed melody in the slow movement was so radiantly perfect, it will make it difficult to go back to the imperfections of all the recordings I own. The woodwinds were equally impeccable, and the brass were glorious, even if their almost constant work-out did show the occasional strain. One early entry of the low brass during the fanfare was a minor blip—caused by player anticipation or conductor miscue, I couldn’t tell—and it wasn’t allowed to throw of the moment’s powerful surge. The constellation of percussion elements was deployed perfectly, adding innumerable glints of color and only rarely being used for sheer physical impact.

Similar in poise and power was Alsop’s concert opener, Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 2. This welcome visitor is not heard as often as its companion Essay No. 1, though it is comparably fine. The performance was both richly handsome and highly dramatic, perfectly suiting the Clevelanders, and sounding perfectly at home in Severance Hall.

Completing the evening was Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, which had nothing to do with the other pieces on the program, and is frankly performed too often. Don’t get me wrong, Schumann is one of my favorite composers, and I can be quite swept away by a surging performance of this work, but I do think it is overexposed these days. For all his loveable moments, Schumann is not a creature of the spotlight, and his concerto shouldn’t be hauled out as often as such tub-thumpers as the Tchaikovsky First or the Grieg A minor. It almost seems as if major international soloists fall back on the Schumann as one of the few pieces they are allowed to play frequently that is more sensitive than brilliant.

If that was young French pianist David Fray’s intention, then he was at least partially successful. His rendition of Schumann’s richly roiling keyboard figuration sharply contrasted melodic material, played with an almost chiseled clarity, and accompanimental filigree, played with a smoothly rolling murmur. Initially, throughout Fray’s first statement of the main theme of the first movement, I enjoyed this analytical clarity, coupled with Fray’s vigorous yet never ham-fisted delivery. As the piece went on, though, I became less and less convinced that Fray was ever reaching outside his own world to connect with the conductor, musicians, or audience. While surely aware of all three, Fray did not convey an urge to communicate the personality evident from his stylistic choices. The style was there to be heard, yet it also remained somehow aloof, calculated, sealed-off. One hopes this intriguing young artist will continue to grow and discover that even introspective music needs a fellowship of performers and listeners to truly come to life.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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