United States Copland, Kelly, Shostakovich: Westwater Arts Photochoreography (historic photo projections), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Rachel L. Waddell (conductor), Umstattd Performing Arts Hall, Canton, Ohio, 23.11.2014 (TW)
Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man; Quiet City; Symphony No. 3, Movement I
Frederick Septimus Kelly: Elegy for Strings and Harp: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9 in E-Flat Major
If America’s entry into World War II was seen by its citizens as not only necessary but also heroic and noble, then perhaps no other orchestral work better embraced such lofty resolve than Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Thus began the Umstattd Hall program called “Remembrance” by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), with CSO Assistant Conductor Rachel L. Waddell at the podium.
In 1942, Copland composed his brief, iconic fanfare to boost national morale. Even now the work remains a dramatic call to attention. Beginning with an explosive bang from the percussion—resonating in the hall like a deafening thunderclap—and through a succession of martial soarings in the brass, I can’t recall a more powerful version than what the orchestra delivered here.
Copland’s Quiet City was drawn from his incidental music for a 1939 drama of the same name by Irwin Shaw. Though war as such was not a pretext for the score, Copland intended it to communicate the nostalgia and angst of a society deeply conscious of its insecurities. Rhapsodic solos for trumpet and English horn, exquisitely performed here by Scott Johnston and Cynthia Warren, respectively, evoked sensations of gauzy stillness, mystery, and nervousness. Broadly spaced atmospheric passages from the sonorous strings built slowly to a climax before coming to a hushed, solemn end.
Copland’s intensely pensive ambience—in this as well as the first movement of his Third Symphony—was made all the more gripping by synchronized large-screen projections of black-and-white photographs from both World Wars, fading in and out above the orchestra. The haunting photomontages were masterfully constructed by Nicholas Bardonnay, a photographer and multimedia artist who joined Westwater Arts Photochoreography in 2009.
These arresting panoramas were not present during Elegy for Strings and Harp: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke (1915) by Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly. Still, the wartime spectre of human sorrow resonated strongly. While serving in the Royal Navy Division during a Mediterranean campaign in World War I, the 24 year-old Kelly composed his tone poem in base camp, on the occasion of the death of his close friend and shipmate, British poet Rupert Brooke.
Though it is Kelly’s best known work (from an admittedly slim oeuvre), this achingly poignant response to the loss of a kindred spirit is very rarely performed. And that’s more than a little surprising, considering the score’s profoundly moving, lyrical character. The compositional dynamic is episodic: a series of gentle, hymn-like crescendos in the strings and lovely, shimmering accents from the harp, all conjuring images of a slow funeral procession against a backdrop of ocean swells, or sunlight dappling the leaves of the olive trees that hover over the poet’s island grave.
The lack of projected photographs brought its own advantages—mostly, there was time to look at the conductor’s animated demeanor. Waddell was palpably caught up in Kelly’s emotional scope, as if pouring herself into the orchestra, which responded with equal passion.
For the program finale, the tenor of the evening shifted away from mournful gravitas into a distinctly more rambunctious realm. When Dmitri Shostakovich premiered his Symphony No. 9 in Leningrad in 1945, Russian audiences—Shostakovich’s nemesis Stalin in particular—were expecting a transcendent victory fanfare, a paean to Soviet greatness in the spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth. Instead, the composer offered an irreverent, startlingly compact orchestral essay threaded with a sardonic spirit. Stalin and many other Russians of that day felt insulted and otherwise mortified.
Waddell took a somewhat hefty amount of time with a spoken introduction, enthusiastically embracing it as a teaching moment. She led the orchestra through several passages of repetitious, inane triads and arpeggios to demonstrate the composer’s insouciant disregard for heroic or pompous theme development.
In the context of Copland and Kelly, Waddell’s intent was not to dismiss or diminish appreciation of war’s toll, or the memory of those who served. It was, as she explained, simply to lighten our mood a bit and hopefully raise a collective smile by providing some emotional relief. With brilliant solo passages from the brass, piccolo and bassoon, the entire ensemble crackled and was clearly victorious in accomplishing just that.