Friday, March 16, 2018

MTT Leads Bernstein’s Copland 3rd with SFS

2015 was a pivotal year for those with a serious interest in listening to the music of Aaron Copland. That was the year in which Leonard Slatkin made the decision to use the original version in his performance of Aaron Copland’s third symphony in one of his subscription series concerts with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Those performances were recorded and eventually surfaced in June of last year as the third release in Slatkin’s project with Naxos to record Copland’s symphonic music.

In his program notes for this week’s performance in Davies Symphony Hall of the Copland third by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), James M. Keller explained why that original version was changed. The symphony’s champion was Serge Koussevitzky. Copland wrote it on a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated it to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. Serge conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first performance on October 18, 1946. It was well received and other conductors, including George Szell, rallied to promote it.

Keller continued the story as follows:
Koussevitzky’s protégé-on-the-rise, Leonard Bernstein, also championed the work early on, although Copland’s feathers were considerably ruffled when Bernstein decided to cut eight measures from the finale [between rehearsal numbers 129 and 130 in the score published by Boosey & Hawkes] without bothering to discuss the matter with the composer first. Copland eventually came to Bernstein’s point of view on the cut—which, in the end, is hardly an earth-shattering issue.
In his notes for the booklet accompanying the Naxos recording, Slatkin claimed, “Only recently has the original version been made available to musicians.” I am not quite sure what constituted availability in Slatkin’s sense of the word. Those eight measures are in my Hawkes Pocket Scores copy, which is basically a lithograph of the original 1947 printing. I bought it in Philadelphia before I had graduated high school. (I know this because I wrote in my name and address, and the address was written before the ZIP Code system was introduced.) At the time I had the Everest recording of Copland himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of this symphony, and it did not take me long to realize that something was missing!

It is hard to argue with Keller’s claim that eight measures out of a 155-page score do not make for “an earth-shattering issue.” Nevertheless, when those eight measures surfaced on Slatkin’s recording, they hit me with a real jolt. In that brief segment Copland managed to summarize his thematic lexicon with multi-voice polyphony at its finest, crafted with enough discipline to bring a smile to the face of his strictest teacher, Nadia Boulanger (assuming she had a chance to read the score, if not listen to the music itself). Perhaps Bernstein felt that the shift in rhetoric at that point was too abrupt and would interrupt the “heroic” flow of the rest of the coda; but, for my own part as some readers may know, I greeted the release of Slatkin’s Naxos recording with great enthusiasm.

As a result, I was a bit disappointed last night to find that MTT chose to side with Bernstein rather than Copland in this matter. Sadly this was one of several disappointments. The more crucial issue had to do with concern for that landscape of climaxes based on the premise that there should be one peak rising above all the others. MTT approached Copland’s first use of fortissimo (on page 4 of that Boosey & Hawkes score) as if it were the top of Mount Everest. This set the tone for the unfolding of all four of the symphony’s movements, pulling out all the same stops each time Copland was building up his dynamic level. As a result, whether or not that cut was taken, it was difficult not to approach the final measures of the symphony with little more than a sense of fatigue. What, in his own recording, Copland had recorded as a journey was reduced to a merciless trek.

Fortunately, things fared somewhat better before the intermission with the performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 26 (third) piano concerto in C major. This music is also given to extreme levels in its dynamics, not to mention a solo part that insistently places the piano as a member of the percussion family. Fortunately, soloist Behzod Abduraimov, making his SFS debut, was not shy in displaying his percussive prowess; but he also knew how to show just as much respect to Prokofiev’s quieter and more lyrical passages. Just as fortunate was that MTT similarly appreciated the dynamic contours on the orchestral side of the concerto, making for a thoroughly engaging partnership between soloist and ensemble.

The program began last night with the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s “Sudden Changes,” written on a commission by both MTT and SFS. This was a large-ensemble piece lasting only about fifteen minutes. From the very beginning, one could appreciate the title: No sooner would a motif be established in one part of the orchestra than some other instrumental resource would interrupt it with “something completely different.” This made for a wild ride challenging the limits of perception. Just as mind tried to form one auditory category, that category would be blown away by another one.

Composer Charles Wuorinen (photograph by Nina Roberts, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Imaginative as this concept may have been, it went on too long. It did not take much time for the attentive listener to “get” the “rules” of Wuorinen’s “game.” However, once those rules were grasped, there was little to offer other than more of the same, leaving the impression that the score could have had twice the impact at half the duration.

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