Sunday, March 17, 2019

BARS Program of American Discovery

Three of the offerings in last night’s Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) program, conducted by Music Director Dawn Harms in the Taube Atrium Theater, were by American composers. However, none of them get very much exposure in the concert hall; and one of them was all but unknown for about the last half-century. The program thus offered an opportunity to consider the history of American music from previously unconsidered perspectives.

The offering most likely to be familiar was a relatively brief composition by Aaron Copland based on music he had composed for the 1940 film version of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, directed by Sam Wood. Wilder had conceived the stage play as an appeal to the imagination, keeping sets and costuming to be barest possible minimum, allowing the words of the characters (including a Stage Director) to evoke images in the minds of each member of the audience. As might be guessed, the Hollywood “industry” did not buy into that minimality; but Copland conceived a score that appeals to the memory of anyone who has seen Out Town as Wilder originally conceived it.

To evoke my favorite quote from Buckminster Fuller, Copland could be a master at “making more and more with less and less.” Thematic material is stripped down to a bare minimum, recalling images of Wilder’s almost-empty stage more than the richly fleshed-out images developed under the supervision of Sol Lesser, the film’s producer. Harms knew exactly how to keep that minimality under control, making sure that even the most subtle of changes would be recognized. Dynamics were kept to an intense hush until the rise to a single thundering climax near the conclusion of the score. While Wood’s film gets very little exposure, this composition would not be out of place if played as an overture to a staging based on Wilder’s thorough text descriptions.

These days Copland’s name is seldom associated with such quietude. He is known more for bold and brash sonorities that reverberate with the American optimism that thrived through so much of the twentieth century. (Born in 1900 and living for 90 years, Copland experienced almost the entirety of that century.) San Francisco composer David Conte had the good fortune to study with both Copland and Copland’s best-known teacher, Nadia Boulanger. He was invited by conductor Neal Gittleman to compose an overture in honor of the centennial of Copland’s birth; and the result was “A Copland Portrait,” a title clearly chosen as a nod to Copland’s own “Lincoln Portrait.”

Conte’s overture could almost be taken as a Cook’s tour of Copland’s favorite idioms. Instrumentation is rich with winds, brass, and percussion; and even the timpani gets a crack at thematic motifs. The energy of the pacing is positively electric, easily triggering memories of Copland’s brash assertiveness in compositions such as “El Salón México” and scores for ballets such as “Rodeo” and “Billy the Kid.” Nevertheless, none of those triggers involve explicit appropriation: Conte developed his own thematic vocabulary to celebrate Copland without imitating him. “A Copland Portrait” served as the overture for the entire evening, thus providing the best possible contrast to that other side of Copland that was inspired by Wilder’s play.

The least known of the Americans on last night’s program was Florence Price. During her lifetime Price was a prodigious and imaginative composer, the first African-American woman to have her music played by a major orchestra. However, shortly after her death on June 3, 1953, she became all but forgotten for a good half-century. More recently her work has begun to emerge on recordings (one of which was discussed yesterday on this site); and the Oakland East Bay Symphony recently played her third symphony in C minor. Last night BARS devoted the second half of its program entirely to her first symphony in E minor.

For the record, I heard the phrase “just like Dvořák” twice last night before Harms raised her baton to conduct the symphony’s first movement. Price certainly knew more than a thing or two about Antonín Dvořák’s techniques as a symphonic composer, and one can appreciate that his may have been a light that guided her through her first major orchestral undertaking. Nevertheless, she developed her own thematic vocabulary and had no trouble drawing upon her source material as a “native,” rather than a “visitor.”

The first thing that will probably strike anyone reading the program page is that she abandoned the “Scherzo” label in favor of “Juba Dance.” This was her own “first-hand” account of the influences behind so many folk and jazz practices; and she had no trouble migrating those influences into a symphonic setting that never felt pedantically manipulated. Mind you, she seemed to have a particular love of gradual crescendo passages, resulting in much of that same “vast expanse” rhetoric that we now take as Copland’s bread and butter. However, the E minor symphony is definitely in Price’s own distinctive voice, and Harms knew exactly how to allow that voice to speak with all the clarity and rhetoric behind it.

The concerto selection for the evening, on the other hand, served to highlight a competition that Harms conceived with BARS support. The winner was the young guitarist Alan Holcomb; and he performed as soloist in Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Composed in 1939, it became one of the most popular concert selections for guitar and orchestra by the second half of the twentieth century. (It also inspired the first track on the album that may well be the one most frequently associated with Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain.) Last night Harms led an account that not only featured Holcomb’s virtuoso capabilities but also highlighted the strikingly fresh approaches to instrumentation that distinguished Rodrigo in all of his orchestral compositions.

Taken as a whole, the program was a delightful celebration of the wide scope of orchestral expressiveness that the BARS musicians command, all presented in a setting that turned out to be a thoroughly engaging journey of discovery.

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