Review: Aaron Copland as a hinge
Times have certainly changed in Brooklyn. Streets unsafe last decade now bustle invitingly. Composers born in the borough last century couldn’t get away fast enough. Composers from all over now can’t move there fast enough.
Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall the Los Angeles Philharmonic continued its Brooklyn Festival with three recent or new orchestra pieces by young Brooklyn residents all born in the early 1980s elsewhere.
The fourth and final work on the program was by a 24-year-old just returned from studying in Paris and happily ensconced on the Upper West Side, intentionally putting as much New York City distance between himself and his native Brooklyn as was reasonable.
That was Aaron Copland. The year was 1924. The work was his Organ Symphony, which launched his career and which got a sensationally gothic performance from soloist Cameron Carpenter and a fine young conductor, Joshua Weilerstein. It is the product of a feisty young Modernist eager to bring the news of the latest musical fashions from Paris to New York along with then-novel bits of jazz in the concert hall. (This was also the year of “Rhapsody in Blue.”)
The nonmainstream Organ Symphony, having never entered the Copland hit parade, remains best known for the remark conductor Walter Damrosch made to the audience at the New York premiere. He quipped that if a composer so young can write a symphony like this, in five years he’ll be ready to commit murder.
Here’s how things really have changed. Some years later during the Great Depression, Copland became a great populist, changing the course of American music in the process. And now the eager-to-please new Brooklyn generation embraces populism without looking back.
Two of the three current works Thursday even made direct reference to Copland at his most mainstream. But there is also an undercurrent, an apocalyptic one, and the question is whether that might someday lead young Brookynites — some of whom are still digging out from the damage of super storm Sandy — into darker, more uncertain waters.
Christopher Cerrone’s brief “Invisible Overture” — which began the program and was inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities” — was the least Copland-esque. This music uses the sound’s decay as a metaphor for where we all might be heading in our unstable world. The use of the orchestra was interestingly varied, but a big climax at the end made it conventional.
The news leaked in the program and the pre-concert talk is that this is the overture to a new opera that the Industry will premiere in L.A. this fall.
Ted Hearne’s 25-minute “Stem,” which the L.A. Phil commissioned, is musically and thematically all over the place. One jumping-off point was Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1959 poem “We Real Cool.” The composer’s note is full of worries about teenage violence and multiple-choice tests. The first of the seven sections is titled “Turn back the clock.” The last is “All retch and no vomit.” The beginning and ending are mysterious and slightly modernist.
Hearne has mastered many techniques. The second section, “Fugue state,” deconstructs with impressive rhythmic agility Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” It loses its punch, however, when the theme becomes apparent.
Next is “Shadow of Billy the Kid” and “The Kid’s kids.” This time a mysterious orchestral halo loses its magic when Copland’s “Billy the Kid” is quoted. I was happiest in “Distractor,” the more moodily abstract movement that took Morton Feldman’s “Coptic Light” as its impetus.
Hearne has a maudlin streak (he’s written a set of emotion-laden Hurricane Katrina songs). Were he to simply erase the direct quotes of his sources, he’d have, in “Stem,” a piece strong enough to make the final thumping chords be a source of wonder.
In her program note to “Hush,” Hannah Lash also reveals an anxious tone, speaking of catastrophe and its post-traumatic response, of scar tissue and a horn left to sing of solace in a no-man’s land. The music, though, has a different feel. Like the others she begins in the inviting abstract and ends in the commonplace specific.
She gets a wonderfully glittery sound. Fond of the celesta, she has the ability to make the whole orchestra shimmer. She ends, though, with a sugary quote of the folk song “All the Pretty Little Horses,” something Copland used in his “Old American Songs” arrangements.
The Organ Symphony seemed, in contrast, tough-minded modern music. Copland also, it so happened, quoted a folk song in the score, but he did so mischievously. And thanks to Carpenter bringing out the ghoulish weirdness of the organ writing more effectively than I’ve ever heard, the work became the sound of a young composer putting his Brooklyn background far behind him.
Los Angeles Philharmonic Brooklyn Festival
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $23.75 to $189
Contact: (323) 850-2000 or https://www.laphil.org
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.