For my criticism class:
American orchestras rarely play American music. Aside from the occasional Appalachian Spring or Short Ride in a Fast Machine, works by American composers are scant in concert halls. Conductors like Marin Alsop who champion the music of this country are thus appreciated. Alsop has shown special devotion to Leonard Bernstein’s work, and has recorded pieces by John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Roy Harris, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. On Dec. 3 in Finney Chapel, she led the Cleveland Orchestra in a program that highlighted the last two composers, as part of the Artist Recital Series.
Alsop followed Bernstein’s example by exploring the construction of Copland’s Third Symphony in brief introductory remarks, illustrated by musical samples. (Bernstein often lectured on pieces, most notably in his young people’s concerts). She explained that the whole symphony is based on Copland’s magnificent “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and shares that piece’s optimism, though the actual fanfare does not appear until the final movement.
Bernstein’s strong interpretative ability lives on in Alsop, who ably navigated this monumental work. Copland’s wide-ranging, naïve phrases were supple and fluid in her hands, and the long piece felt confidently plotted, with a sure narrative. Cleveland’s winds were sublime in solos, while the brass imbued their epic fanfares with a radiant glory. The third movement begins with a stratospheric melody in the violins, a terrifying moment for intonation. The musicians fearlessly executed it, their pure tone beautifully contrasting with the pained theme.
Alsop and the orchestra also braved Copland’s piled-up, complex rhythms in moments that evoke a wind-up toy shattering to pieces as it marches. Copland poured all of his art into the finale, utilizing his majestic fanfare theme and the whole, massive orchestra. After a lone piccolo flits away from agonized, dissonant chords midway through the movement, the music strikes a hopeful tone, with bright themes and brilliant orchestration recalling a joyful Christmas scene full of presents and tolling bells.
The composition of Barber’s Second Essay was, like the Copland, instigated by Serge Koussevitsky and premiered in the 1940s. Similarly, it features broad wind solos, stunning in the hands of Cleveland’s musicians, and contrasts wild, aggressive episodes with passionate lyricism. Alsop molded the music as if it were a tangible thing. She pulled phrases out of the air with visible effort, note by effortful note. This emotionality came to an expressive climax as the strings sawed at a unison note with broad bow strokes, each a dagger to the heart.
The program also included Schumann’s Piano Concerto, with soloist David Fray. Alsop adeptly followed Fray while he folded his part into the texture of the orchestra, so that the experience was more chamber music than concerto. Fray’s technique was brilliant, but his playing lacked nuance and contrast, making the piece staid and repetitive.
Alsop and the Cleveland Orchestra amply illustrated the case for American classical music. As great as the European masterworks are, 20th century music from this country inhabits a different, fresh world, one that deserves to be explored more.