Encores & Curtain Calls: Cut from radically different cloths
“You compose because you want to somehow summarize in some permanent form your most basic feelings about being alive, to set down ... some sort of permanent statement about the way it feels to live now, today.
— Aaron Copland
The Pioneer Valley Symphony’s “Made in America” concert arrives Saturday,
Feb. 2, at 7:30 p.m., at the Greenfield High School auditorium, 1 Lenox St., Greenfield. And there’s lots to like on the program, which, like almost all PVS menus, includes the Tried-and-True as well as the Novel-and-New.
In the first category come two of America’s most eminent composers, gentleman who, while for a time contemporaries — George Gershwin died at a youthful 39 in 1937 while Aaron Copland lived to a venerable 90, passing in 1990) —– were cut from radically different cloths.
Both the sons of Jewish immigrants from Russia (Copland) and the Ukraine (Gershwin, and both families who elected to Americanize their traditional surnames — Copland from Kaplan and Gershwin from Gershovitz) — Copland and Gershwin shared little other than their Judaic roots, their love of music and a distinct passion for the fresh air of the newborn culture of America.
Each found his own unique way of giving vent to that passion: Copland through the highbrow path of 20th century classical art music and Gershwin through the back alleys of Tin Pan Alley and the hoopla of Broadway.
While Gershwin was a phenom almost from the start (even his earliest sketchbooks and abilities at extemporization demonstrate the unmistakable imprint of innovative genius), Copland was a lifelong plodder, deliberater and perfectonist.
Where Copland labored long and delivered such now classic note-perfect icons of Americana as his “Appalachian Spring” ballet for Martha Graham — a piece which, despite its glorious beauty and bestowal of the Pulitzer Prize, harbors no genuinely original melodies — Gershwin would, in a white heat of inspiration, give Cesarian birth to a “Rhapsody in Blue,”almost overnight, stuffing it with extravagantly striking tunes.
We know from much musical scholarship that Copland was quite aware but also understandably leery of Gershwin, allowing him the qualified but ultimately damning praise that intellectuals so often resort to in attempting to marginalize naturally-gifted musicians whose immense talents threaten to eclipse them.
Alas, I can only paraphrase the firsthand account of an orchestral conductor — the esteemed Eugene Ormandy of Philadelphia Orchestra fame, if memory serves — who was present at a party and watched at close range as Gershwin took up residence at the piano and improvised. The gentleman was immediately rapt, even spellbound, finding that, unlike all other facile improvisers he had witnessed, Gershwin’s creations conveyed not merely musical continuity but an organic, multi-dimensional growth comparable to that of the great symphonic composers while also demontrating the absolute command to articulate them instantaneously at the keyboard. He had never witnessed anything remotely like it before or since.
As a possible parallel, we take the case of the immensely gifted Leonard Bernstein, who, despite his abilities to condense and play a 30- or 40-staff orchestral score at the keyboard at sight, and being a fine, sometimes brilliant composer, always lamented that he was never able to improvise jazz piano; his only failing, in the view of some.
Or take the firsthand report of Gershwin’s collaborator, writer DuBose Heyward, on Gershwin’s late-life masterpiece, the opera “Porgy and Bess.” While creating the composition on an island just off the Carolinas, Gershwin liked to refresh himself by taking evening strolls:
“The Negro (there) prides himself on what he calls ‘shouting.’ This is a complicated rhythmic pattern beaten out by feet and hands as an accompaniment to the spirituals and is indubitably an African survival. I shall never forget the night when, at a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island, George started ‘shouting’ with them. And eventually, to their huge delight, stole the show from their champion ‘shouter.’ I think that he is probably the only white man in America who could have done it.”
Whether attained through personal industry or divine decree, Gershwin’s gifts were second to none. While keenly aware of those gifts, Gershwin, for his part, undertook formal study with mentors old and new, soliciting — without success — such luminaries as Arnold Schoenberg, the latter a neighbor and tennis buddy for a time in Hollywood, and Maurice Ravel, who told him, “You might lose your spontaneity and, instead of composing first-rate Gershwin, end up with second-rate Ravel.”
And speaking of Hollywood, it came calling for Copland, once his star had risen, resulting in such heartbreakingly poignant scores as that for film versions of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” of 1939 and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” in 1940 — music that defines and delineates what has come to be thought of as genuinely ‘American’ right down to our own time.
No, the Copland aesthetic is not the brilliant, flashy passion of a Gershwin’s, but an altogether more considered, reflective and poetic distillation of sentiments, no less penetrating for all its careful deliberation. And when it does make the grand gesture, letting all the stops out, we can still sense the methodical meticulousness of Copland’s work ethic behind it, rather than the impulsive torrent so natural to Gershwin.
It is almost as if the glowing meteorite that was Gershwin knew that his light would extinguish itself in a few brief years, whereas the fixed constellation that was Copland sensed that his would be a long and ample tenure in the heavenly firmament, with world and time enough for all he wished to do.
Suffice it to say that, ironically, both these widely, wonderfully differing composers, along with their program brethren — John Williams (a great Copland groupie) and Philip Glass, not to mention quite a few others — share a common liaison with the cinema. The spare and tender “Red Pony” score, the rich and redolent “An American in Paris” (later to be transformed into a masterful musical by Gene Kelly), the neo-romantic violin theme from “Schindler’s List” and the colorful ear-candy of Philip Glass’ concerto for violin under the hands of soloist Johnny Gandelsman. This is music about life, about feelings and, in particular, about us; not merely abstract ideas or artistic blueprints.
As if to underscore this sensibility, Glass himself says, of his creation, “I wrote the piece in 1987 thinking, let me write a piece that my father would have liked ... A very smart nice man who had no education in music whatsoever, but the kind of person who fills up concert halls ... it’s popular, it’s supposed to be ... it’s for my Dad.”
And, hopefully, it’s for a lot of other dads, grandads, moms and grandmoms – and all the progeny thereof.
Tickets to the Pioneer Valley Symphony concert are $20; students and seniors, $17; children, $6.
Contact the PVS box office at 413-773-3664.
Advance tickets are also available at World Eye Bookshop,
156 Main St., Greenfield; Broadside Books, 247 Main St., Northampton; Boswell’s Books, 10 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls; Amherst Books,
8 Main St., Amherst.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at