Tilson Thomas takes CSO on a fascinating Copland road less traveled

Fri Nov 05, 2010 at 3:04 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Trumpeter Christopher Martin and English hornist Scott Hostetler perform Copland’s “Quiet City” with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

There are not many conductors around who can program an evening of Aaron Copland that manages to serve up two Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription premieres, another work not heard downtown in a quarter-century, and one familiar composition performed in a rarely heard alternate version.

Who else but Michael Tilson Thomas? As with music of Mahler and Stravinsky, the conductor remains our finest Aaron Copland interpreter, having enjoyed a close friendship and professional bond with the celebrated composer in his late years.

Thursday night’s program at Orchestra Hall brought us three shortish works, all rarities, which helped to round out our portrait of Copland and that, no doubt, proved illuminating to anyone who still regards him primarily as a purveyor of folksy homespun Americana.

As the conductor pointed out in his spoken introduction, before Copland wrote the folk-inspired ballets in the late 1930s and 1940s that would establish him as an acclaimed populist, his style was lean, acerbic and edgy to the point of provocation. Infused with jazz rhythms and an aggressive drive, Copland’s modernist style was cast in a kind of American Futurism with a decidedly urban, iconoclastic quality.

Certainly, his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra made people sit up straight at its 1925 premiere. Immediately following the first performance, conductor Walter Damrosch strode back on stage and famously said, “Ladies and Gentlemen: I am sure you will agree that if a gifted young man can write a symphony like that at age 23, within five years he will be ready to commit murder.”

Damrosch’s joke notwithstanding, the symphony, heard in its belated CSO subscription debut, still packs a wallop. Written for his teacher, the noted pedagogue and organist Nadia Boulanger, the symphony is surely crafted in its three movements but you can sense Copland’s palpable impatience to find his own compositional voice. The work moves from a Gallic Franckian opening to a spikier Stravinskian middle section. It is the final movement with its acid-toned harmonies, sheared-off accents and gnarly, crashing Hammer Films organ chords that gave Damrosch and conservative audience members the vapors at its premiere.

The Organ symphony may not be prime Copland, but it’s an important work in the composer’s development and kudos to Tilson Thomas, organist Paul Jacobs and the orchestra for providing such a full-blooded and powerful performance.

Aaron Copland

A stronger case can be made for Copland’s equally neglected Orchestral Variations. The work is an arrangement of the composer’s Piano Variations, an undisputed classic of 20th-century instrumental music. Written in 1930, the Variations are a crucial road marker in Copland’s development, moving from his anarchic 1920s style to a lucid, more concentrated expression in these twenty tightly woven variations and coda.

The Orchestral Variations remains a taut and compelling piece of music but has failed to catch on, likely due to its complexity and brief (13 minutes) duration making it a tough piece to program.

In the Variations’ CSO subscription debut on Thursday, Tilson Thomas supplied his own expansion of the composer’s 1957 arrangement for relatively modest-sized orchestra. Scored for Mahlerian forces, Tilson Thomas’s arrangement flirts with bombast at times but under the conductor’s incisive direction, the CSO’s brilliant playing made an eloquent case for this unjustly overlooked music.

Has there ever been a finer distillation of nocturnal urban loneliness than Quiet City?  Assembled from incidental music Copland originally wrote for an Irwin Shaw play, this lovely miniature has not been heard downtown since 1986.

Tilson Thomas clearly has the feel for this music, drawing luminous string playing, yet Thursday’s performance felt like something of a work in progress. While Scott Hostetler’s mellow English horn had just the right evocative midnight introspection, Chris Martin’s trumpet was too loud and present until the closing bars. Placing the two soloists in their usual chairs rather than standing stage front, concerto style, might make for a better balance.

After the dull-as-paint reading of the chamber version of Appalachian Spring led by Robert Spano last season, the vital, engaging and warm-hearted performance of Copland’s celebrated ballet in its orchestral version served up by Tilson Thomas and the CSO came as a timely restorative.

Here too, the conductor gave us a new slant on this familiar music, electing to present a section of the ballet that Copland excised from the better known suite. Most of the restored material comes from a section in the middle of the Simple Gifts variations, in which a fire-and brimstone preacher darkly warns the homesteading young couple of the trials and dangers that life may present to them. This extensive passage segues from jarring percussive basses to a driving piano part, adding a more frenzied, ominous dimension to the ballet.

Yet while this restored section makes Appalachian Spring a darker piece, I’m not convinced it makes it a better one. The material is somewhat discursive, plus the jazzy, syncopated writing feels too contemporary and alien to the musical style of the rest of the ballet. Like all great composers, Copland was a perceptive, highly skilled editor of his own music and–while interesting to hear–it’s hard not to agree that the composer’s final thoughts were best.

Apart from quite glorious playing from flutist Mathieu Dufour and vividly characterful work from clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and concertmaster Robert Chen, the playing was surprisingly scrappy in places with trumpet and horn bobbles, ensemble slips and what sounded like a misread by some string players near the beginning of the restored pages.


Paul Jacobs

The concert was preceded by a brief conversation with the evening’s organ soloist, Paul Jacobs. In addition to his engaging comments Jacobs delivered a luminous performance of Bach’s Great Fugue in A minor and a spell-binding turn in music of Liszt.

Orchestra Hall’s under-utilized Casavant organ may not be the most elaborate instrument in the world–or even in the city–but Jacobs certainly made it roar in Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam. In this epic 30-minute edifice built on a choral theme from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete, Jacobs’ virtuosic performance was remarkable, thrilling in its bravura and drawing an array of subtle and heaven-storming symphonic registrations in this uber-chromatic music.

The CSO program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. There will also be a free pre-concert event at 6:30 p.m. with soloist Paul Jacobs in conversation and performing organ works by Bach and Liszt. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Tilson Thomas takes CSO on a fascinating Copland road less traveled”

  1. Posted Nov 08, 2010 at 10:16 am by Mary Wilson

    It was a treat to hear Paul Jacobs in recital before the orchestra performance–WOW He’s truly a first-class artist. Hope the CSO features him again soon. I don’t recall ever having hear the organ at Orchestra Hall.

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