America Writ Large – The Brooklyn Art Song Society Presents the Songs of Aaron Copland

United StatesUnited States Brooklyn Art Song Society – Iconoclasts IV. Aaron Copland: Kristina Bachrach (soprano), Dominic Armstrong (tenor), Jorell Williams (baritone), Michael Brofman (piano), Brent Funderburk, (piano), Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn, 1.2.2019. (RP)

Aaron Copland © Boosey & Hawkes
Aaron Copland © Boosey & Hawkes

Copland – Old American Songs, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson

In her excellent pre-concert lecture, professor and author Patricia Mainardi provided insights into the cultural and political environment in which Aaron Copland came of age and forged his musical identity. It wasn’t the easiest of times. Championing folk music and progressive political leanings equated to socialism in post-World War II America and these, together with Copland’s youthful flirtations with communism, brought him to the attention of US Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Copland was a commie pinko then, but not long after he was elevated to the status of a national monument, cherished for capturing some of American’s most inviolable myths in music.

The fourth concert of the Brooklyn Art Song Society’s Iconoclasts series featured Copland’s great song cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson and his Old American Songs, both composed in the years 1950-52. (His grilling before McCarthy’s committee came in 1953.) They were performed, as Copland intended them to be, in their original versions for voice and piano. Copland would later orchestrate eight of the Dickinson songs and all of the Old American Songs. He also arranged the latter for chorus and piano, and most were given orchestral accompaniments as well.

Copland dedicated each of the Dickinson songs to a different composer friend, including David Diamond, Elliott Carter, Alberto Ginastera and Lukas Foss. The reviews after their first performance in 1950 were so brutal that Copland quipped to Leonard Bernstein, ‘I must have written a better cycle than I had realized’. The 12 songs are now recognized as one of his finest achievements and rank among the best art songs ever written by an American composer.

Soprano Kristina Bachrach, the epitome of an elegant, poised singer, was at her best in the grandest of the Dickinson settings with their fearless leaps, jagged melodies and ringing climaxes: ‘Dear March, Come In!’, ‘Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?’ and ‘The Chariot’. In these her voice took on a burnished, bronze-like aura that arched beautifully in the soaring phrases and resounded thrillingly in the climaxes.

That is not to say that the quieter, more contemplative songs did not make their impact. ‘Heart, We Will Forget Him!’, the most gentle yet passionate of internal dialogues, was instilled with warmth and poignancy. Similarly, ‘When They Come Back’, in which Dickinson wrote of the fear that spring will not return, was perfection in its simplicity.

Michael Brofman, the founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Art Song Society, was at the piano. He was at one with the spirit and style of these exquisite songs. I longed for a bit more of a roaring storm in the opening to ‘There Came a Wind Like a Bugle’, and on occasion balance was an issue, but such moments were few and fleeting. Brofman got to the core of each song and expertly partnered Bachrach in delving into their emotional depths.

The first set of Old American Songs was premiered in England at the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts in 1951 by tenor Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten at the piano. They were an immediate success, prompting Copland to arrange a second set that he and baritone William Warfield premiered in 1953. They have been my constant musical companions since I first sang some of the choral settings in high school; no songs appear more regularly on the recital programs of American singers.

The texts that Copland set in Old American Songs touch on politics, religion, children, love, death and minstrelsy. A couple of them had their origins in the British Isles, but the majority are pure Americana. ‘The Dodger’, a campaign song that skewers political candidates, preachers and fickle lovers, rings as true today as it did in 1884. The best known of the set is ‘Simple Gifts’, a Shaker melody dating form 1848 that Copland had used in his ballet Appalachian Spring. Tenor Dominic Armstrong gave voice to both, as well as the other three songs that comprise the first set.

The very first notes that Armstrong sang grabbed your attention, as he hurled out the call of a boatman that was beautifully echoed in the softest of pianissimos. He transformed the poignant ‘Long Time Ago’ into a lyrical and tender memorial to young love. Wit and high spirits abounded in the ‘The Dodger’ and ‘I Bought Me a Cat’. Even though Copland composed these songs with a tenor voice in mind, they are generally sung by lower voices, and it was a rare treat to hear them in the higher keys.

Jorell Williams has a smooth baritone that is tailor-made for the songs of the second set. He imbued the lullaby, ‘The Little Horses’, with tenderness, while the tragic fate of a carpenter boy at sea told in ‘The Golden Willow Tree’ was delivered with urgency and pinpoint diction. In this set the simplicity of the Shakers yields to the religious fervor of the revival tent in ‘Zion’s Walls’ and ‘At the River’. (The latter song was composed in 1865 by Robert Lowry; the tune takes its name, ‘Hanson Place’, from the Baptist church in Brooklyn where he served.) This was grand, emphatic singing, as remarkable for its restraint as its fervor.

The final song, ‘Ching-a-Ring Chaw’, is another one of Copland’s rapid-paced tongue twisters, equal parts malarkey and cry of salvation. It was originally a minstrel song with a text in dialect that Copland felt had to be rewritten for, as he explained, ‘I did not want to take any chance of it being construed as racist’. Williams spat out the words clearly, precisely and calmly, reserving his power for the shouts of holy thunder that beckon in the promised land.

Brent Funderburk, the pianist for both sets, brought charm, wit and gusto to the accompaniments. His playing was richly colored, whether in rolling chords or the gentle strumming of the quiet ballads. More than once, his nuanced phrasings caught me by surprise.

Earlier in the week, baritone Sanford Sylvan had died in New York City. Among his recordings with pianist David Breitman was the 1991release, Beloved That Pilgrimage, which included Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. It caused a bit of a stir at the time as the songs, so long associated with female singers, were recorded by a man. I can only think that neither Dickinson nor Copland would have given it a second thought. It just seemed so right to hear these songs on a cold winter night and remember the remarkably talented, versatile singer who had given voice to them.

Rick Perdian

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