With music of Copland, Brooklyn Art Song Society fetes a gentle iconoclast

Sat Feb 02, 2019 at 1:40 pm
Songs of Aaron Copland were performed by the Brooklyn Art Song Society Friday night.

Songs of Aaron Copland were performed by the Brooklyn Art Song Society Friday night.

Returning to New York after his studies in Paris, young Aaron Copland found himself first reviled as an intolerable modernist, then embraced as the voice of American patriotism. But one thing was sure in his mind, as he recalled later: those Depression and war years were “not a time for poignantly subjective lieder, but a time for large mass singing.”

But in 1949, as his fiftieth birthday approached along with peace and prosperity in his native land, Copland began to see things differently. We have that change of heart to thank for the lively recital of Copland songs presented by the Brooklyn Art Song Society Friday night at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

It was a bit of a stretch to include this American icon in a recital series titled “American Iconoclasts.”  He may have broken some statues elsewhere in his career, but the Copland of Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson hadn’t forgotten his populist style even as he turned his attention to “poignantly subjective lieder.”

The poet herself had much to do with that. “There was something about her personality and use of language that was fresh, precise, utterly unique–and very American,” he wrote, perhaps unaware that he was also describing his own music. Dickinson’s great daring and imagination came in a plain wrapper, and Copland set it mostly to simple diatonic harmonies—but with subtle commentary throughout in the piano, and some startling choices in the vocal line.

On Friday, soprano Kristina Bachrach and pianist Michael Brofman conveyed both the simplicity and the gentle subversion of Dickinson’s lines. (Brofman is also artistic director of the Society and author of a perceptive essay on Copland in Friday’s program.) Though limited somewhat by breathy tone that became harsh in forte, Bachrach inhabited each song imaginatively and put it across with crisp diction in songs like “There Came a Wind Like a Bugle” and nuanced legato phrasing in “The World Feels Dusty” and “Heart, We Shall Forget Him.”

Copland himself admitted he played the piano “like a composer,” and no Copland piano part will ever sound round or pearly, but Brofman paid attention to voicing the composer’s stark chords and shaping his busy right-hand lines for maximum effect. Even in fast tempos, Copland never let the piano go “on a roll,” but Brofman handled the start-and-stop traffic well.

In contrast, piano momentum gave the singers a big boost in Copland’s Old American Songs, Sets I and II, which followed after intermission. Contemporary with the Dickinson songs—Set I, in fact, was written while Copland was “stuck” in composing that cycle—these lusty folksong settings put the listener back in Billy the Kid and Rodeo territory with expressions whimsical, sentimental, and spiritual by turns.

In Set I, Dominic Armstrong’s beefy tenor and acting skills made him the ideal fast-talking flim-flam man in “The Dodger” and folksy raconteur in “I Bought Me a Cat.” His signal call in “The Boatman’s Dance” sounded as though it would carry from Brooklyn to Ohio. But he throttled back effectively for the parlor song “Long Time Ago” and a soft, spare setting of “Simple Gifts.”

Baritone Jorell Williams’s vocal tone ranged from intimate forward diction to spacious resonance in the five songs of Set II. Brent Funderburk’s piano part, relegated by Copland somewhat to the background during Set I, now assumed more importance, providing a carillon-like setting for Williams’s preacher in “Zion’s Walls” and some Stravinskian edge to the dark sea shanty “The Golden Willow Tree.”

Whether in the foreground or not, Funderberk played his role with sprightly rhythms, characterful commentary, digital dexterity, and piano tone that was equally convincing in the light daddy-dance of the lullaby “The Little Horses” and the murky deep chords of “At the River.”

For his part, Williams sensitively captured the mood of each song, tender to ominous to ebullient. And it was nice to have that bass-baritone power in reserve for when the music needed it.

The Brooklyn Art Song Society’s “American Iconoclasts” series continues with a Gershwin program March 1 at the Brooklyn Historical Society. brooklynartsongsociety.org; tickets at brownpapertickets.com

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