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Copland's Two Sides Showing

Pacific Symphony's salute to American composer solidly tackles difficult and appealing work.

November 22, 2000|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the closing event of its eight-day Copland Centenary Festival, the Pacific Symphony chose to bring us starkly face to face with the two sides of the composer: the populist and the modernist.

The dichotomy had been present all along, but the difficult music was embedded so deeply, briefly and transitionally in the appealing stuff that no one had a particularly hard time with it.

Not so Sunday in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Two readily accessible pieces, "El Salon Mexico"--in a piano transcription by Leonard Bernstein--and selections from "Old American Songs" surrounded two thorny and challenging works, "Vitebsk (Study on a Jewish Theme)" and the Piano Sonata. And the sheep were separated from the goats.

I know which side a critic is supposed to be on, but the truth is that neither piece is comfort music. Nor was meant to be.

Played with deep commitment by Pacific concertmaster Paul Manaster, principal cellist Timothy Landauer and guest pianist Benjamin Pasternack, "Vitebsk" is the easier of the two.

Composed in 1928, four years after Copland returned from his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, the piece takes its name from the village home of Polish-Jewish playwright S. Ansky, who wrote "The Dybbuk." Copland uses the same folk tune Ansky used in his play for this musically austere portrait that depicts the precarious, isolated nature of life within a white Russian ghetto. It is years ahead of actual events--though unfortunately also timeless--in capturing a snapshot of a persecuted people.

The 1941 Piano Sonata is dense and spiny and by almost everyone's admission, requires repeated hearings, perhaps as many as 10, before it yields its greatness. Pasternack played it with verve, sympathy and insight, even so, only the closing pages, which evoke a beautiful calm and haunted sense of something precious that has been lost, reached out to every listener at once.

In Bernstein's lively and evocative transcription of "El Salon Mexico," Pasternack was able to make the work sound tighter and more rhythmically precise than the orchestra had earlier in the week.

Venerable baritone William Warfield joined the pianist for authoritative accounts of "Simple Gifts," "Zion's Walls," "At the River" and "Ching-a-ring Chaw."

Also part of the program, UCLA professor Robert Winter showed in a fascinating CD-ROM work-in-progress how Martha Graham's choreography for "Appalachian Spring" worked so counter and brilliantly to expectations about Copland's music. Incidentally, one hopes the final production will not show the dancers (in a filmed version from the '50s, with Graham as the young bride) in such unfluid motion, nor with such ungrounded weight, which is absolutely ruinous to authentic Graham style.

The evening ended with festival advisor Joseph Horowitz hosting a panel of the participants as they answered questions from the audience. It was a friendly way to conclude the orchestra's first festival in a series devoted to American composers.

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