A composer’s posthumous reputation is nothing if not uncertain. Take Stephen Foster, who died destitute in a Bowery hotel in 1864 but whose songs, now familiar to everyone, encapsulate an era. Or Foster’s contemporary, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose success both in Europe and throughout the Americas was like no one else’s before him but whose music, when heard today, sounds maudlin to our ears.
Thursday night the PostClassical Ensemble collaborated with The Phillips Collection to offer a glimpse of the posthumous reputation of the “Dean of American Composers,” Aaron Copland, who died 25 years ago. Titled “Copland and the City,” the program amounted almost to a career retrospective, albeit a succinct one focused on the first 40 years of Copland’s life.
With New York his lifelong center of operations, Copland is as entitled as anyone to be considered an urban composer. Paintings on urban themes from the collection, by Hopper, Hirsch, Marin, Davis and others, were specially hung on the walls of the Phillips music room.
Lura Johnson opened the program with a powerful performance of “Piano Variations” from 1930, Copland’s seminal work for the instrument. Her performance emphasized the audacity of Copland’s ultra-modernist style before he evolved a more populist voice.
Next, PostClassical’s artistic director, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, conducted an 11-piece chamber ensemble in “Quiet City,” a 1940 score that originated as music to a now forgotten play by Irwin Shaw. Atmospheric solos for English horn and trumpet, beautifully played by Fatma Daglar and Tim White, rose to the level of expressive dialogue.
Then Lewis Mumford’s documentary “The City,” created for the 1939 World’s Fair, with a score by Copland, was shown. In 1990 the film was re-released by Naxos, with a newly recorded soundtrack by Gil-Ordóñez and the PostClassical Ensemble.
The film depicts a bucolic America lost to urban blight and industrialization while advocating smaller, planned communities as more suitable for healthy families. Copland’s score sounded as fresh as the day it was written.
Afterward, PostClassical’s executive director, Joseph Horowitz, who provided thoughtful commentary throughout the evening, was joined by Johnson, Gil-Ordóñez, architect Thomas Krähenbühl and Washington Post arts critic Philip Kennicott in a discussion.
The evening proved a rare instance of unqualifiedly successful cross-disciplinary programming, with music, film, painting and architecture playing mutually supportive roles. It almost seemed as if Copland’s benevolent spirit was present, presiding over everything.
With scores like “Appalachian Spring,” “Rodeo,” “Lincoln Portrait, and “Fanfare for the Common Man” now subsumed into the bedrock of the American consciousness, Copland’s iconic status as musical elder statesman is secure. As Thursday night amply demonstrated, each new exposure to Copland’s music is a reminder of how direct, apt and powerful it remains.
Rucker is a freelance writer.