Sunday, May 31, 2009

In review--Folky Classical

Greatest Hits
RCA Victor (1991)

Grieg: Peer Gynt
with Barbara Hendricks & Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen
CBS Records (1989)

I sometimes recommend that friends, colleagues and students to peruse their libraries classical music collection. European and Western classical music has a vast catalogue that ranges from medieval to contemporary times, with many genres and eras. I certainly cannot afford to buy every classical recording that strikes a chord with me (pun intended), but I can check out recordings from the library and also read music reference books such as The Rough Guide to Classical Music.

One recent rediscovery, was the work of American classical composer Aaron Copland. We have all heard fragments of this composers work, from the American beef industries "eat beef" (not this vegetarian), commercials with Hoedown from Copland's ballet Rodeo and we have all heard passages from Appalachian Spring as Americans living in the U.S. After all, Copland was not just a music composer, he was an American icon that successfully fused American sentiments in the form of folkloric music and themes in his classical compositions. There is a hint of national pride here, if not the makings of a national treasure.

Copland was not the first classical composer to work with the vernacular and local folk traditions. Europe abounds with such composers including Manuel de Falla, Jean Sibelius, Antonin Dvorak, Ludwig Beethoven, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Edvard Grieg and the list continues. George Gershwin worked with the African-American vernacular in his opera Porgy and Bess and employed jazz and even blues idioms in his symphonic works, such as Rhapsody in Blue.

Copland wasn't the first American classical composer to fuse folkloric elements to his compositions either. His mentor Charles Ives had done this earlier, but not with the same level of success. Copland along with Gershwin had timing and other help working for them. They were both able to capture the American spirit and grow into musical icons. Gershwin was more urban, and Copland, although born in New York City, captured the American West and the pioneers of Pennsylvania.

While I don't believe that Copland--Greatest Hits is the best recording of Copland's work, it does include some important work at a budget price. Fanfare to Common Man, Appalachian Spring, The Tender Land, Bill the Kid and the Hoedown from Rodeo appear on this recording performed by the Boston Symphony led by Aaron Copland, the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Eugene Ormandy and the Boston Pops led by Arthur Fieldler. My favorite recording of Copland's most popular work was with the Seattle Symphony led by Gerard Swartz. Unfortunately, my local library does not carry this title.

The Greatest Hits recording though is a fine place to start. Listen to it with the intent of distinguishing the folk elements, and listen closely to Copland's genius as an arranger and orchestrator. He successfully blends delicate, even elegant passages with horn fanfare and bold gestures. This is mood music with a rich palette to choose colors, tones and textures. And similar to the French Impressionist musicians, which must have been an inspiration to Copland, this composer also paints scenes with orchestration.

You can literally see the young pioneer couple at their housewarming party in Pennsylvania. You can see Billy the Kid out there in the desert struggling to survive and stay ahead of the law. Granted the music needed to be visual since it was composed for ballets and it needed to be rhythmic for the dancers.

I just wonder why it is only now that I am fully appreciating Copland's music. After all, I grew up with it. It is healing on many levels with its beauty, grace and uplifting quality. And not only that, we as Americans don't pay enough attention to the composers in our backyards. Sometimes we even belittle them when we feel like we have to compare them to their European counterparts. Or we think maybe they are too commercial or too involved with Hollywood or Broadway to be taken seriously. But make no mistake about it, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and other American greats deserve the same kudos as Bach and Beethoven.

Now we are off to Norway to explore the music of the Norwegian Romantic composer Edvard Grieg. I did not even know about Grieg until I attended a free women in music classical recital in Seattle many years ago. The pianist and violinist duo performed one of Grieg's chamber pieces and I was literally blown away. I never did find a recording of that exact piece, but have listened to other pieces of Grieg's repertoire. Most recently I sat down with Esa-Pekka Salonen led recording of incidental music for Henrik Isben's mythological play, Peer Gynt.

Again, who among us has not heard passages from this work? In the Hall of the Mountain King is probably the most famous song in this work with its plucked strings and fantasy-like atmosphere (think Lord of the Rings). Grieg did not only bring in Norwegian folk elements, but was also composing lullabies, dance pieces, love songs and impressions. Similar to Copland, Grieg married elegant and delicate passages with bolder swashes. His music has some Wagner elements in that a poetic and breathtaking beauty comes through loud and clear, followed by crashing cymbals and motifs played on woodwinds.

This particular recording led by a Finnish conductor, also features the vocal talents of Barbara Hendricks whose Solveig Song mesmerizes its listeners if not completely holding them captive. Halling (track 3) brings in what sounds to me like the Norwegian hardanger fiddle, a national treasure that hails from Norwegian folk music. Halling is also a folk music tradition. So it's no wonder that the Norwegians still love this composer!

While I am merely listening to a recording, I would not mind hearing a live performance of this music or seeing the play backed by an orchestra with Norwegian folk musicians. At the moment, I want to stop writing and give this recording another good listen. It's a challenge though with the weed wacker in the background...