Satisfying Student Performances of Modern American Classics at RWCMD

United KingdomUnited Kingdom United Kingdom   Carter, Copland: Woodwind Quartet, Chamber Orchestra / Michael Cobb (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 27.1.2016. (GPu)

Elliott Carter (1908-2012) – Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for Woodwind Quartet (1950)
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) – Appalachian Spring (1944)

Over the last few years I have heard the student musicians of the Royal Welsh College of Drama give quite a good number of thoroughly competent (at least) performances of a range of often demanding music. This has been the case almost uniformly, whether the performances were given by ‘official’ ensembles such as the College Orchestra or Choir, or by more ad hoc groups, whether under the direction of seasoned professionals or student conductors or, indeed, in self-directed chamber groups (such groups no doubt having the benefit of advice and guidance from some of those who teach at the College).

Here was another concert to add to the roll of honour. This lunchtime concert (which attracted a very decent audience, both student and non-student) saw two unnamed ensembles play two contrasting works, written within a few years of one another, under the title of American Classics. A wind quartet, made up of flautist Cameron Cullen, clarinettist Chloe Dobbs, oboist Bruce Foster and bassoonist Stanley Kaye-Smith, started the proceedings with Elliott Carter’s Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, written when the composer was teaching orchestration at Columbia University. This was followed by Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, played in its original instrumentation for a chamber orchestra of 13 players which Copland employed in writing the score for a ballet commissioned by Martha Graham and Elizabeth Coolidge. The first orchestral suite, which omitted some of the ballet music,  the fourteen sections of the ballet score becoming eight in the suite, was produced in 1945 at the request of Artur Rodzinski. An orchestration of all the ballet music was made in 1954, with the encouragement of Eugene Ormandy and in 1972 Copland produced a version of the suite for his original ensemble of double string quartet, piano, bass, flute, clarinet, and bassoon. This last version was what was played in this concert, (by violinists George Taylor, Morven Graham, Alex Casson and Sarah Cole, with the violas of Megan Jowett and Daire Roberts, the cellos of Gemma Connor and Toby Hodder, along with the piano of Emma Cayeux, the double bass of Rachel Walsh, the flute of Charlotte Thomas, the clarinet of Michael Lowe and the bassoon of Stanley Kaye-Smith, conducted by Michael Cobb); the relevant letters to Harold Spivacke, included in Aaron Copland: A Reader, edited by Richard Kostelanetz and Steve Silverstein, 2004, throw interesting light on the composer’s work on the original score and make it clear that the 13 instrument format was arrived at, in large part, as a compromise with the practicalities of financial and other considerations. Initially, in a letter dated August 30th 1943, he wrote that he was thinking in terms of a piano and a double string quartet, but in June of 1944 he reported “I told Martha the other day that the ideal combination now seemed to me to be the double string quartet with double bass, one piano and three woodwinds (probably flute, clarinet, and bassoon)”. Even so, he was ready to agree that when on tour it might be played with a single string quartet, rather than double quartet.

Carter’s Etudes and the associated Fantasy are thoroughly abstract pieces, complex structures of timbral juxtaposition and of the working out of purely musical ideas. So, for example, the opening etude is built upon a pattern of intervallic leaps, while the second etude makes much use of thirty-second notes, not least when all four instruments have to play these rapid sequences in perfect unison. Indeed, as Mark Lehman puts it, “Each of the brief etudes in Eight Etudes and a Fantasy poses and solves a specific compositional problem, sharply restricting itself to a single elemental idea”. But, as Lehmann adds “the plenitude that Carter extracts from his recalcitrant materials is fascinating, and several of the etudes are so nifty to listen to that one forgets their pedagogical purpose”. This is fair enough, but it has to be said that this is not music which really does much to invite the listener in. Rigorous in both structure and manner, listening to it is more akin to looking at a highly polished and efficient machine than at a Canova marble nude, paradoxically full of implicit warmth and humanity. There is, of course, no shortage of either quality in Appalachian Spring.

The four students who formed the wind quartet for Carter’s Eight Etudes and a Fantasy can all be proud of their work. This is not, as I have already hinted, an easy work to play, but full of technical difficulties both for the individual instrumentalists and for the collective work of the ensemble. In the first etude the playing of flautist Cameron Cullen (not least in his initial descending leap of two octaves) and bassoonist Stanley Kaye-Smith was particularly impressive, both technically certain and attractively vital. The very difficult second etude exposed, to judge by the very highest standards, some occasional raggedness of ensemble, but never so severe as to be seriously damaging (there was a hiccup in the musical machine rather than a breakdown). Carter’s exploration of the possibilities of a lengthily sustained chord of D major in the third etude was well played by the whole group as was the severely challenging eighth etude with its acrobatics of register (oboist Bruce Foster was especially impressive here) and difficult moments of coordination amongst the four players. So far as I could judge (I was listening without a score), no one failed to cope with the flutter tonguing and unconventional fingering demanded by the sixth etude (the technical assurance of clarinettist Chloe Dobbs was particularly striking). Some genuine beauty was discovered in Etude VII and the fugal ‘Fantasy’, which closes the work and draws on much of what has gone before, was played with gratifying lucidity. This student group made as good a case for Carter’s work as one could reasonably have hoped for.

Where Carter’s work is built upon complexity, Copland’s Appalachian Spring makes, in more senses than one, a virtue of simplicity (or at least the appearance of simplicity – it is far from being a naïve work). It is not mere chance that its climax should take the form of  a series of variations on a Shaker dance song intended for use in worship – ‘Simple Gifts’ by Elder Joseph Brackett (1797-1882), originally written in 1848. The ballet narrative for which Copland was originally writing his music involves a young bride and groom beginning their life together, and the building of a new house; the ‘Spring’ in the work’s title refers both to a source of water (primarily) and to the season. It is, that is to say, a work ‘about’ successful beginnings and what comes from them. It is essentially optimistic, and seems to speak of sentiments at least analogous to those expressed in Brackett’s original song:

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

The spirit of the dance is never very far away in Appalachian Spring (as in the folk rhythmsof square dances? – in section 4 of the suite,  and the solo dance for the bride in section 5, as well as in the climactic section 8). And as the words of Brackett’s song suggest, the dance is not just central to the musical idiom of Copland’s composition, it is also an important key to its meaning, to the nature of its very ‘American’ optimism. I am reminded of Ezra Pound’s aphorism in his ABC of Reading (1934): “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music”. Whatever the universal truth or otherwise of what Pound says here, it does seem to be true that much of the most successful and memorable American music – by Ellington, Bernstein and others – is profoundly rooted in dance (in a way that Carter’s Etudes, intellectually fascinating as they are, are not).

This performance of the 13 instrument version of Copland’s suite was played with freshness and enthusiasm (though the enthusiasm was never at odds with the required discipline) and benefited from the conducting of Michael Cobb, who is studying orchestral conducting at the RWCMD with David Jones. Cobb’s control of tempi, balance and dynamics was astute and imaginative and all of the student performers showed themselves to be technically assured as well as thoroughly competent ensemble players. It would be invidious to single out any individuals for specific praise; all contributed to a persuasive performance of this justly popular work – a performance which confirmed my preference for this chamber orchestra version over that for larger orchestra, which seems to me to add a degree of gloss and sheer scale rather at odds with the ethos of the music, its passages of harmonic asperity and its validation of the power of simplicity. So, overall, another occasion for gratitude to the RWCMD and its students, who continue to make a valuable contribution to Welsh musical life.

Glyn Pursglove

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