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Music Review

Forgotten Copland Is Grandly Revealed


Only a small portion of Aaron Copland's fame rests on his film scores. That might seem quite odd, given that Copland developed his populist style by writing for the movies, and at least three of his film scores--those for "Of Mice and Men," "The Red Pony" and "Our Town"--are classics in the genre. Ironically, Copland became most popular for a more elitist art, the ballet. "Billy the Kid," "Rodeo" and "Appalachian Spring" made him beloved.

And so the Pacific Symphony, in its inventive and provocative Copland Centenary Festival this week (the composer's 100th birthday was Tuesday), has chosen to investigate the nature of Copland's Hollywood connection. The festival, which includes concerts, panels of film composers and screenings, began last weekend and concludes Sunday with a multimedia event. But its centerpiece was an orchestral concert under the ensemble's music director, Carl St.Clair, Wednesday night.

Not everything on the bill was film music, but the program covered the period between 1936 and 1949 in which Copland was active in Hollywood (he wrote one further score for a gritty independent film, "Something Wild," in 1961). And the highlight of the evening--a screening of a short 1939 film "The City," with Copland's music played live by the orchestra--proved an important discovery.

This 45-minute forgotten film by Otto Serlin, with narration written by influential urban thinker Lewis Mumford, was a poetic cinematic essay of images (and a small amount of narration) about the perils of urban life. There is no dialogue and the music is nearly continuous. Removing the soundtrack and replacing Morris Carnovsky's narration in the film with that of a live actor, Dakin Matthews, proved a straightforward affair (although, as St.Clair explained to the audience, not a simple one). The orchestra members added the few sound effects themselves--most amusingly in a scene in which men's voices are heard dictating to rows of typists. Approximately 10 minutes of the film was trimmed, but not, reportedly, sections with music.

Only two segments of Copland's music from "The City," which was first screened at the 1939 New York World's Fair, are generally known from their inclusion in the composers' suite, "Music for Movies." But, in fact, "The City" is an astonishing missing link not only in the genesis of Copland's Americana style, but also in American music and cinema.

The film addresses the lack of balance in American life between idyllic nature and poisonous cities. It's the perfect subject for Copland, allowing him to hone his own balance between an attraction to the rhythms of the modernist big city and a mystically evocative sense of wide open spaces. And the cinematic contrasts between scenes of nature and frenetic city life are a striking precursor to Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi" some 40 years later.

There is even one startling section in "The City," a humorous look at lunch counter automation, in which Copland's music is an uncanny anticipation of Philip Glass' Minimalist style, which accompanies "Koyaanisqatsi." Copland never wrote like that before or after, yet these couple of unknown pages are powerfully prescient of the most significant stylistic revolution in the last quarter century of American music.

Elsewhere on the program, St.Clair examined the more famous Americana style Copland developed over the next decade. Included was the serene incidental music for Irwin Shaw's play "Quiet City"; the famous patriotic pieces, "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "A Lincoln Portrait," as well as the slightly earlier "El Salon Mexico" and a suite made up of Copland's Oscar-winning score to William Wyler's "The Heiress."

The performances were highly enthusiastic, sometimes to very good effect, sometimes not. St.Clair's Copland style is effusive in the Leonard Bernstein manner, not restrained in Copland's own. It worked to great advantage in "El Salon Mexico" but was overbearing in "Quiet City," for which Lelie Resnick and Burnette Dillon were the equally overbearing English horn and trumpet soloists.

The need to synchronize music with screen forced a certain restraint in "The City," yet St.Clair impressively brought out the music's vibrant personality. "The Heiress" Suite, which was put together by Richard Freed in 1990, is an abomination; Copland's music loses a crucial element when divorced from his structural devises, and St.Clair's verve was unhelpful.

"A Lincoln Portrait" also began badly, with instrumental bluster and poor ensemble playing. But then something special occurred. William Warfield, the 80-year-old singer and a close colleague of Copland, began to speak Lincoln's words. Delivering his narration, from memory, with poise, eloquent phrasing and exceptional dramatic timing, he turned political speech into inspiring poetry. At a moment in our history when the nightly news bombards us with scheming politicians, Warfield reminded us, through Lincoln and Copland, of finer words. Warfield--who was also unforgettable in an encore from Copland's "Old American Songs" and who will sing at the festival finale on Sunday--is a national treasure.


* The Pacific Symphony's Copland festival continues Saturday and Sunday, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 755-5799.

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