Copland House opens New York series with chamber masterworks by Copland

Tue Nov 05, 2019 at 1:39 pm
Music of Aaron Copland was played by Copland House Monday night at CUNY’s Elebash Hall.

For those who have been interested in the music at Copland House, but considered the trip up the Hudson to Cortlandt a little too far, there is good news: Copland House concerts now come to Manhattan. 

This new series is presented by the CUNY Graduate Center, where it opened Monday night in Elebash Hall, with performances of music by, appropriately, Aaron Copland.

Copland House presents and supports a broad range of American classical music, but why not introduce New Yorkers to the institution with some of the composer’s own chamber music? Monday night, that program was the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Quartet for Piano and Strings, and the Sextet.

This was wonderful music given warm performances, the musicians expressing the sense that they found personal meaning and satisfaction in playing Copland. The Violin Sonata is Copland at his warmest and loveliest, and the Sextet is among his finest compositions. Hearing all this music together reinforces the view that there is no separation between the “modernist” and” populist” sides of the composer—in fact, there are no sides at all and each work is a point on a continuum.

Pianist Michael Boriskin, who is artistic and executive director at Copland House, anchored each piece. Copland has a machine-tooled exactitude to his writing, and Boriskin hit all the marks while also playing with a supple touch and subtle phrasing, always getting the most music out of the score.

Magdalena Filipczak was the violinist in the sonata. The performance sounded full of humanity and empathy, and Filipczak’s keen sound made a clear outline of the sonata’s deceptively simple. structure (Andante, Lento and Allegretto). Boriskin and Filipczak followed a through-line in the piece, bringing out the vast interior journey lying just underneath its surface.

Boriskin introduced the Quartet by praising its “amber lyricism” and also noting that performances are rare. Then he and violinist Pala Garcia, violist Danielle Farina, and cellist Alexis Pia Gerlich proceeded to demonstrate why. This was not a bad performance, nor a bad piece of music. But it was, in the context of Copland’s career and this concert, decidedly odd.

Copland’s personal stamp was also his genius. He used complex elements to produce a clear, plain-spoken language, a sound that appeals to everyone while also being deep in abstract and compositional ways. His music elicits vivid personal responses while never letting on to what he’s thinking and feeling inside.

The Quartet is a knotty, expressionist, angst-filled piece, with a strong sense of defeatism. It is also chromatic and dissonant in odd ways; Copland’s rhythmic and formal style are there, but there’s something non-musical, partially hidden—one senses not only his encounter with Schoenberg’s 12-tone method but perhaps his personal experiences with growing McCarthyism.

The Quartet does have an appeal, but it’s ambiguous. One hears all the familiar elements of the composer’s art—most strongly through the rhythmic design of the Allegro giusto movement—expressed through unfamiliar language, like seeing an Edward Hopper painting interpreted by Francis Bacon. This was a confident and transparent performance, but one needs more exposure to the piece to feel closer to it.

Copland wrote his Short Symphony (No. 2) in 1933, and it had its premiere in Mexico City in 1934, from the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico, with Carlos Chavez conducting. Leopold Stokowski and Serge Koussevitzky scheduled performances, and both later cancelled, saying the work was too difficult to prepare in the time available.  Frustrated by this situation, Copland retooled the work, reduced the symphony to a Sextet (string quartet plus piano and clarinet).

What makes the music so difficult is its rhythmic complexity. The first movement in particular has metrical changes nearly every bar. But what was impossible in 1937 is now well within reason. The rest of it is not so difficult, and the Sextet too shatters artificial distinctions of modernism and populism. 

The rhythms work perfectly with the short, stabbing phrases and the wide open textures to make music that is completely exciting, grabbing the body and fascinating the mind.

With its concentrated form, and through the sinewy and confident performance Monday night, the Sextet came off as the most appealing of all Copland’s works, even more so than the sensuous pleasures of Appalachian SpringBilly the Kid, and the Violin Sonata.

Derek Bermel was the excellent clarinetist Monday night (he is also a terrific composer). The musicians played with an eagerness about tackling the challenges of the writing and grabbing hold of the vitality inside. The uncomplicated statement of the middle Lento movement was sympathetic without being plaintive.

Music From Copland House presents works by Andrew Norman, Karim Al-Zand, Gabriela Lena Frank, Viet Cuong, and Robert Sirota, 7:30 p.m., December 2.

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