Classical Music Review: New Releases

Aaron Copland - Celluloid  Copland. From Sorcery to Science. The City (Suite); The Cummington Story (Suite, Arr. Sheffer); The North Star (Suite). Eos Orchestra, Jonathan Sheffer, conductor. Telarc 80583. (59'27).

The first classical music I ever heard live was by Aaron Copland. That experience -- in Hayward no less -- had a big impact on me. And why? Because the music was direct and communicated vividly. Copland's centenary was celebrated last year with lots of performances, and with the release of CDs including one by The San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. And now we have New York's Eos Orchestra in an album of four film scores, its release timed to co-incide with PBS' Copland's America ("check local listings"), in which it plays a starring role. Eos' first CD was all Paul Bowles, and their latest, led by music director Jonathan Sheffer, is equally fascinating, and fun.

Film music has gotten a bad rap, especially in America.  In Europe nobody cares, and Copland's contemporaries like Prokofiev and Honegger, went back and forth from film to concert work, as did Benjamin Britten. Like him, Copland was gay -- though not, I think, especially out -- and worked in as many genres as he could, with remarkable results in each. And being a child of his time he sometimes scored films with social concerns, like his first, The City. Written by leftist Pare Lorentz, who did 2 earlier documentaries with composer Virgil Thomson, and shot by Paul Strand, it was first shown at the 1939 New York Worlds' Fair. Copland's music is energetic and highly imaginative, especially cues like "Taxi Jam", with its skittering strings, and "New England Countryside" which has fluid, delicate orchestration, and wry, bouncing rhythms. The Office of War documentary, The Cummington Story (1945), was about the resettlement of presumably Jewish refugees in a Massachusetts town. Copland's music here is highly lyrical, string dominated, in his idealized Americana vein, though more poignant and certainly more expressive overall than his "ballet for Martha [Graham]" Appalachian Spring (1944).

Lewis Milestone's 1943 The North Star starred Anne Baxter ("Eve, Eve") and Erich von Stroheim in a Lillian Hellman script about the Nazi rape of a Russian village. Copland's score is appropriately grand, even over-the-top, with lots of fanfares and drum tattoos, and sometimes touching. There's even the witty " Going to School" which sounds like a French children's song, and a wonderful oddity, "The Song of the Guerillas", which has perfectly serious words by Ira Gershwin!  "From Sorcery to Science" couldn't be more different. Written for a puppet show at the New York World's Fair (1939), it's snappy and shows the composer's command of styles -- Mexican-Afro-Cuban  in "African Voodoo", and advanced French-derived harmony in "The Alcehmist."

Copland wrote 5 other Hollywood scores including one for William Wyler's trenchant Henry James film, The Heiress (1949), which got him and Olivia de Havilland Oscars, and the Carroll Baker starrer Something Wild (1961). His pupil Alex North stayed in Hollywood and prospered. Copland succeeded too, in almost everything he did.  Sheffer's orchestra responds superbly, and the sound is brilliant and clear, with lots of punch.

-Michael McDonagh
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