Magazine article The New Yorker

Classical Music

Magazine article The New Yorker

Classical Music

Article excerpt


Aaron Copland, best known for his populist works, also composed in a more rugged modernist style.

A Man in Full

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony perform Copland.

In the nineteen-nineties, those days of peace and prosperity and Pax Americana, Aaron Copland (1900-90) was the beau ideal whom young American composers strove to emulate. The tonal-atonal split in classical music, embedded in Cold War cultural politics, no longer seemed urgent, and the values that shone from such mid-century scores as "Appalachian Spring," the Clarinet Concerto, and "Fanfare for the Common Man"--clarity, optimism, and impregnable craftsmanship--were hugely attractive.

Such works are a permanent part of the American repertory. But now, in an era dominated by terrorism, environmental anxiety, cultural fragmentation, and economic inequality, members of a younger generation--which takes dystopian cynicism as its birthright and rock-inflected minimalism as its "common practice"--find such artistic values rather quaint. How fitting, then, that the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas's upcoming concert with the San Francisco Symphony, at Carnegie Hall (April 13), reveals a composer far removed from the sunny populist whom most audiences know.

No one could accuse Copland's Orchestral Variations (1957) of being warm and cuddly. Commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra, it is an orchestration of his famously jagged Piano Variations (1930), an uncompromising solo work. Copland had Socialist sympathies, but he was also a savvy businessman, and orchestrating the work was a strategic move, allowing him to reassert his modernist bona fides at a time when more populist styles had acquired a Soviet tinge. The Piano Concerto (1926), offered with the soloist Inon Barnatan, is arguably Copland's deepest engagement with jazz--and with Gershwin, whose "Rhapsody in Blue" is a close relation. It's a far more ingratiating piece than the Variations, but its abstract and unsentimental treatment of jazz and ragtime influences demands an attentive audience.

The third work, "Inscape" (1967), written at the close of Copland's career, is fully twelve-tone and thus, in a way, the most "modern" of the set. (The title is a word, invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins, denoting a semi-mystical state that reveals a hidden pattern of order.) Yet its granular dissonances mask a gentler sensibility. The three qualities that mark any great Copland piece--the lyrical, the kinetic, and the proclamatory--are still there, glowing beneath the shadows of dusk.


Metropolitan Opera

Despite reports that some members of the company would like to see James Levine retire as music director, the current revival of "Simon Boccanegra" proves that the orchestra still plays Verdi for him like it does for few others, with sensuous phrasing and richly saturated color. The beloved tenor Placido Domingo is dramatically suited to the title role, but his increasingly weathered voice lacks the dark baritonal hue required to blend into Verdi's sumptuous orchestral texture. Joseph Calleja and Lianna Haroutounian, as the opera's tenor-soprano couple, are an ardent, fresh-voiced pair, and Ferruccio Furlanetto and Brian Mulligan deliver ferocious performances as the Boccanegra's nemeses. (April 13 at 7:30 and April 16 at 8.) - The late Patrice Chereau was a giant among opera directors: his work in the nineteen-seventies and eighties popularized the now-standard practice of reimagining an opera's setting in new and revealing ways. His production of "Elektra," Richard Strauss's Expressionist take on Greek mythology's most dysfunctional family, finally comes to the Met, after stops in Aix and Milan. The company has assembled a world-class team for the occasion, with the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading Waltraud Meier, Adrianne Pieczonka, Eric Owens, and the preeminent dramatic soprano Nina Stemme (in the title role). (April 14 and April 18 at 8. …

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