Festival Misses Copland's Uncommon Side

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Aaron Copland will go down as the founder of a distinctive style of American classical music, the creator of such populist works as "Fanfare for the Common Man," "A Lincoln Portrait" and "Appalachian Spring." It is this idiom, which captured the country's mood and direction in a time of stress, that has come under the microscope in "Aaron Copland's America," a week-long festival presented by the Catholic University School of Music.

If listening to the opening concert at the Church of the Epiphany on Monday evening was to feel a sense of idealized national greatness, it was also to be left wondering whether you were actually getting close to Copland's artistic genius.

Two of the composer's most famous scores anchored the concert. The Catholic University of America Symphony Orchestra -- a solid student group conducted by Kate Tamarkin -- etched the Shaker hymns and vibrant colors of "Appalachian Spring" with competence and energy. Earthy woodwinds and teeming strings provided continuous drive, while photographs of pastoral American scenes were projected overhead. XM Radio classical music programming director and author Martin Goldsmith narrated "A Lincoln Portrait" with calm authority.

The payoff of the festival's focus came through when it presented less familiar scores. The 1948 Suite From "The Red Pony," one of Copland's film scores, had an unpretentious verve, while the composer's "Old American Songs" of 1950 showed his ability to conjure up a folk sound, expressing something rustic and pure. Gifted student vocalists performed the songs.

Tonight promises similar rewards when the festival features a world premiere, "New Old American Songs," a series of 10 traditional American tunes arranged in Copland's populist folk style by various regional composers.

The festival culminates with Friday and Saturday performances of Copland's only opera, "The Tender Land." The 1954 work never gained a solid hold in the opera repertoire, despite a positive critical reception. Murry Sidlin, dean of the music school, has rearranged the score for a chamber orchestra, seeking to make the textures more transparent and balanced.

The festival's narrow focus has limitations, foremost that it misses Copland's stylistic diversity. Before his folk-inspired work resonated, his music had a spare modernism and jazz inflection that shocked audiences. And, at the end of his career, he delved into 12-tone composition straight out of the Second Viennese School, hardly the well-liked stuff that made him a household name. How Copland went from modernism to more popular fare and back -- or whether the changes were actually much of a fundamental transition -- are questions left for the accompanying lectures and films.

"Aaron Copland's America" is more about celebrating than deconstructing the composer. The remaining performances, which will all take place in the Great Room of the University's Edward Pryzbyla Center, promise a healthy dose of classic Copland, music filled with hearty zest and a boundless sense of possibility.

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