Ain’t That America: William Sharp and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop at the Music Center at Strathmore, November 11, 2011

Marin Alsop loves Aaron Copland’s music, and on Friday, the audience at the Music Center at Strathmore could tell just how much. She called him “the quintessential voice of American orchestral music” at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s latest “Off the Cuff” concert, before they played Copland’s most famous work, the orchestral suite from his ballet “Appalachian Spring.” Alsop followed her usual “Off the Cuff” model for pre-performance talks: an introductory bio of the composer, sprinkled with telling anecdotes and effective jokes, then a discussion of musical landmarks in the work at hand. She had the orchestra illustrate the open, limitless effect the so-called perfect intervals can have by playing the first few notes of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and she brought out baritone William Sharp to sing “Simple Gifts,” in Copland’s arrangement, just so the tune would be in our heads for the finale.

Copland composing by candlelight at the Berkshires in 1946. What, no electricity? From the Library of Congress

Though Alsop’s presentation always held my interest, at times I wondered whether it might be overkill for “Appalachian Spring,” which holds its place in popular esteem (and the Music Center was packed to the gills for this one) by being so immediately approachable. There’s certainly value in understanding it a bit more, as with the intervallic discussion, but I think anyone could pick out when (for example) Copland introduces a fiddlin’ tune. I could be wrong.

The performance itself had a common weakness of Alsop-led readings — a sometimes indistinct rhythmic pulse. Copland wants these rhythms to snap and crackle; sometimes the BSO wouldn’t quite hit a beat all at once, or hit a beat as sharply as they should’ve. But Alsop’s strengths also came through. When playing the hushed, almost devotional music that begins and ends the suite, the BSO managed to play as if whispering, with the clarinet at the beginning sounding like daybreak. In louder, faster moments, the BSO sounded bright and piquant, and one could feel the enthusiasm from conductor and orchestra that ultimately carried this performance along. It would have been hard to resist, and no one in the hall on Friday appeared inclined to try.

“Appalachian Spring” is not quite long enough to fill even a short program like this one, so Sharp provided bonus content: six more of the “Old American Songs” that Copland arranged for voice and orchestra. Yes, there was a singalong, in which the audience got to make all the barnyard-animal noises of “I Bought Me a Cat,” and yes, I thought it was the highlight of this portion of the concert, mainly because I got to make a horrible honk of a goose noise many, many times in the context of a supposedly respectable orchestral concert. Sharp seemed to enjoy making such noises even more than I do, and that zest showed up in the rest of these songs as well. Obviously, he can make a beautiful noise, as songs like “At the River” showed, but it’s even more impressive to hear a voice stay beautiful when packing lots of words into lines and inflecting them in a natural manner, as in “The Dodger,” where he explained with jaunty glee how we are all corrupt liars. Sharp made a giant lyrical flub in “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” that necessitated a restart, but the good humor of the evening had been established so thoroughly that it would have seemed churlish not to forgive him immediately.

Plus, how can you be mad at this guy? From Sharp's management's website.

Sharp, of course, was at Strathmore last week for these Post-Classical Ensemble concerts, singing songs of Charles Ives. Since Sharp teaches at Peabody, it was probably a matter of commuting rather than staying in MoCo for a week, but the connection between last week and this week nevertheless invites one to contrast — the small tweaks in Copland’s songs communicating his essential affection for his source material, Ives not loving his sources any less but feeling freer to distort or transform them.

As Alsop noted in her intro, Copland’s America was “the America of his imagination and his dreams,” as he never strayed much from his native Brooklyn except to hit France to learn how to compose. Ives trod his New England path doggedly, finding endless variations and surprises in what was familiar to him. Copland, a socialist, wanted to compose for the masses; Ives, a real-life insurance exec, had the means and inclination to compose for himself. Copland recognized Ives’ genius and advocated for his work, and it’s not like we have to determine which one is more quintissentially American than the other, but they certainly show two different paths to American greatness. Kudos to the P-CE, the BSO, and Strathmore for making the juxtaposition possible — always a nice way to leave a concert, with one’s mind full of unresolved, excited thoughts.

TOPICS THAT HAVE LITTLE TO DO WITH THE BALTIMORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA’S PERFORMANCE

Besides being very large, Friday’s audience was also very old, more than normal even for symphony orchestra concerts. (Indicating that some stereotypes are true, the garage at Strathmore was nearly unnavigable before and after the concert due to tentative driving of large cars.) In the post-concert Q&A, for which Sharp joined Alsop, one person actually asked, “We’re, some of us, getting older…Is this a concern to you?” Alsop speculated that people tend to come to classical music later in life, at least if they’ve had childhood exposure to the stuff. Coming from a family that went to classical concerts pretty much from when my sister and I were old enough to be babysat, I have no idea whether that’s true.

But, as a young person who is periodically asked why young people don’t attend classical concerts, I offer the following:

  • As Alsop noted, “Young people don’t want to go to places where there aren’t a lot of young people.”
  • Tickets are expensive. If I wasn’t getting press tix, I would probably go to the symphony two or three times a year, for specific programs or performers. I’d concentrate my concertgoing at venues with free or cheap tickets (Library of Congress, Freer/Sackler Galleries, etc.) and at chamber music in general, where tix tend to be cheaper. For someone with a casual interest in classical music, $65 for a non-nosebleed seat is a steep hill to climb.
  • Sometimes, what is happening is kind of boring. This is true at any type of event, of course, but at classical concerts such a reaction is looked upon as reflecting a lack of education rather than a justifiable judgment.
  • Other people’s post-concert questions. One person asked “whether there are American musicians today reaching down to indigenous music from the classical sphere.” Note the telling preposition! Another guy asked whether Alsop and Sharp had heard the new Tony Bennett album, and what they thought of it. Fortunately, Sharp had an actual opinion on this, so the questioner was not left hanging, but it could have been quite awkward in addition to being kind of a bizarre choice of question.
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