For the record (and to dispel a stereotype), I'm continuing to realize that Aaron Copland is America's greatest composer. But I won't make that assertion in this post. Instead, this is preamble for how I found myself attending a Rob Kapilow music appreciation event at Stanford on Sunday. For those who don't know Rob, he educates listeners on the details and meaning of a particular piece through closer examination. I have a CD of his covering Mozart's Jupiter Symphony where he provides musical examples and insights (prior aworks note here):
Remember, things with Mozart are never as simple as you think....The martial flourish versus intimate strings....Contrast transformed into unity...
I found this CD (hi, Amoeba bin) quite annoying but this month's concert with Rob accompanied by an augmented St. Lawrence String Quartet was too much for me to resist since it presented Copland's Appalachian Spring. If I truly believe Copland is the guy, how could I not attend?
And fortunately, at least live, Rob was interesting, funny, entertaining, and memorable. He also worked the sell-out audience effectively. The format was an hour of lecture with examples from the piece, the piece itself in a full run-through and then a Q&A. Pedagogically, it was so-so. I could understand each isolated musical example, but in real-time, since I didn't know exactly the context in which they would appear, I missed many of the examples we had just covered. This may just be a remnant of my jazz days where I learned best by replaying sections ad infinitum.
What was interesting? He talked a lot about the "Appalachian Spring" chord, how the rest of the piece grows out of its use in the beginning, and while seemingly simple, there's more than than you might think. On the other hand, he suggested Copland had the courage to be so simple. I may prefer my simplicity truly simple but I understand his point.
Kapilow did have a particularly clever idea of reciting the text to the familiar Shaker song used as source material in the work while the clarinetist played the melody. I doubt I will ever hear "A.S." again without thinking about that. I'm less enamored about how I may also remember Rob Kapilow everytime I hear this composition. In particular, I have a low threshold for hyperbole; to suggest that the ending is "superb, fantastic and amazing" doesn't help me like it more. Although, that may just be me; at the end of what I thought was a reasonable performance, the crowd applauded more enthusiastically than any concert I've been to in awhile.
Moving beyond specific musical details, Kapilow had some larger insight into what Copland was doing and why we like this piece so much. Copland's intent was to capture the essence of what this music was about but in no way was it an attempt to be authentic. As was pointed out, presumably Shaker music didn't use modulation and counterpoint and yet Copland incorporated these techniques to his benefit. Similarly, Copland's Billy the Kid was given as another example f an imaginative interpretation rather than a factual account. This has me wondering if Doctor Atomic's downfall may ultimately be because it attempted the latter?
Kapilow suggested another reason we respond to Appalachian Spring is that it represents an idealization of America with all the possibility that entails, versus the reality of what we have, and that we want to believe. Well said.
Finally, in the Q&A, I didn't but wanted to ask why does Rob hate "Copland the Modernist?" A presumption on my part, of course...
iTunes. By the way, the Kapilow Mozart CD has a better Amazon sales rank than the Copland conducts Copland CD.
Update: Copland is of course spelled with a "d." Also, I wonder if Appalachian Spring is one of the few pieces after 1915 that Hucbald doesn't hate?
For that matter, I see Copland as the lowest-common-denominator Greatest American Composer. Does anybody really hate the music of Copland? Other choices are surely more contentious -- Stravinsky? Feldman? Glass? Adams? Ives?
Michael West in the comments suggests Duke Ellington as the Greatest American Composer. I suppose no one generally hates the music of Ellington either athough even that pick gets into the relative merits of jazz composition versus classical composition. This does make me want to listen to East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, though.