triumphant: American Symphony Orchestra.
American Symphony Orchestra
Music Festival, Annandale-on-Hudson, Aug. 21
The joy of Bardís annual summer music festival is the concentration
of music and people relating to the yearís chosen composer.
This year, Aaron Copland got the much-deserved limelight,
opening a window on the state of American music throughout
the last century.
As in past years, the final summer concert last Sunday featured
the American Symphony Orchestra in a rip-roaring program the
like of which youíll never find in a mainstream concert series.
Coplandís brassy Symphony No. 3 was the centerpiece,
but the rarely performed third symphony by Roger Sessions
also was on the program, a work that practically insists that
you dislike it upon first hearing.
Which says more about we as listeners than about Sessions
as a composer. True, his later music resisted the pursuit
of populist approval, but it rewards the open-minded listener
with an experience of emotionally satisfying complexity. Sessionsí
four-movement Symphony No. 3, which dates from 1946,
opens with a Molto agitato movement that explodes in
your face with slashing gestures that soon coalesce into a
remarkable soundscape, highlighted by solo violin over horn
The runs and repeated notes that characterize the Allegretto
capriccioso that followed wove in and around themselves
with the contrapuntal techniques Sessions liked to employ,
and itís here that the shortfall of this concert was realized:
Housed in a shiny new concert hall, composed of some of the
best players in the New York area, the orchestra nevertheless
was brass heavy at the expense of those inner voices.
Part of the problem is the lousy acoustic response of the
hall, which buries the sound of the strings; part is the dynamic
balance conductor Botstein achieves, which tilts in favor
of so much volume that many in the audience had fingers jammed
in their ears.
It wreaked havoc in the Sessions symphony, but suited the
several fanfares with which the concert openedónegligible
works (sadly) by Roy Harris, Walter Piston and William Grant
Still, with a sleeper by Henry Cowell that was worth hearing.
Coplandís Fanfare for the Common Man, which was played
a few days earlier, was commissioned along with these works
as part of a World War II jingoistic spirit, and Copland reworked
the stirring theme of his piece into his Symphony No. 3
(1946), one of his last major orchestral works.
A stirring rendition (there canít be any other kind with a
work like this) concluded the concert, again with the roar
of the orchestraís expert brass section giving bones and teeth
to the work. Copland the unabashed populist was in evidence
in the first and third movements, with overtones of Appalachian
Spring, but the second movement, Allegro molto,
demonstrated not only the composerís ready wit but also his
debt to the likes of Shostakovich. Just when you thought it
might get a little outrť, however, weíre back to the
pentatonic scale-sounds that characterize Coplandís Billy
the Kid and it all feels quite all- American.
Coplandís Ivesian Inscape, written for the 1962 opening
of Lincoln Center, also was performed to impressive effect,
its hymn like quality set off by the aggressive cacophony
of its outer sections. And his 1949 Preamble for a Solemn
Occasion vies with his own A Lincoln Portrait for
the title of Most Overblown Piece of Orchestral Tripe, but
the Portrait still wins thanks to the brevity of the
narration thumbtacked into this piece.
Declaimed in a near whisper by Mia Farrow, even the distortion-inducing
over amplification couldnít make up for her complete lack
of dramatic conviction.
The afternoonís concert featured Coplandís Piano Quartet
from 1950, one of his more aggressive forays into serialism,
but built on an 11-note tone row. The scalar movement of his
row elements provided plenty of opportunity to harmonize the
work in an ear-pleasing way, and this may be one of the best
pieces with which to introduce the nervous listener into such
By contrast, David Del Trediciís setting of a James Joyce
text, I Hear an Army, for soprano and string quartet,
is seeded with smaller elements drawn together in service
of the text, and was sung with elegance by Courtenay Budd.
Although itís a tough-to-listen-to piece, plangent and disturbing,
it packs a wallop, a fitting close to the programís first
Coplandís friend and biographer Arthur Berger was represented
with a duo for cello and piano, a work with a serial sensibility
but tonal overtones, often setting up an intricate byplay
between the two instruments. Lukas Fossís Capriccio
for the same pairing is a more lyrical, light-hearted work,
and both were excellently played by cellist Sophie Shao and
pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
Tenor Philippe Castagner and pianist Kevin Murphy gave captivating
readings of song settings by Britten and Rorem, the former
comprising four of the Folk Song Arrangements, the
latter to texts by Ben Jonson and Robert Frost. A gnarly Flute
Sonatine by Pierre Boulez and a percussion interlude co-composed
by John Cage and Lou Harrison rounded out the program.