Copland’s Piano Concerto

The music of American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is no stranger to the concert hall (Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Fanfare for the Common Man are all played quite frequently), but some of his pieces are rarely brought out into the open. A good portion of this somewhat unfamiliar repertoire belongs to the early part of Copland’s career. In the early 1920s, Copland studied in Paris with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught a stunning array of other twentieth-century musicians. Boulanger encouraged Copland to cultivate his unique musical voice, and Copland followed suit with a style that embraced elements of modernism – dissonant tone clusters and jagged rhythms – as well as elements inspired by popular music, such as jazz. (The Spotify playlist below features an album of some of his “modernist” works, all brilliantly played by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.)

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Aaron Copland enjoying an ice cream cone at Interlochen in 1970. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

One product of Copland’s early style was his Piano Concerto, which was completed in 1926 and first performed in 1927, with Copland as the soloist. The first movement opens boldly, with a brass call-and-response before a soaring, cinematic melody is presented in the horns and strings. In a surprising turn, the piano is introduced by itself and softly, seemingly caught in an introspective moment. The music gradually builds in confidence – with help from the opening brass material – but is also full of conflict, becoming increasingly saturated with dissonant chords.

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John Adams: “Naïve and Sentimental Music”

This is the first installment of a new series I am calling Quick TakesSince I am a busy grad student and don’t always have boatloads of time to write lengthy, in-depth blog posts (as much as I would like that!), Quick Takes will hopefully allow me to generate more occasional posts that shorter and blurb-like. Each will be around 250-500 words (roughly speaking) and focus on one specific item – a favorite piece of mine, a composer who I am currently into, or anything else of musical interest.


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American composer John Adams (b. 1947)

John Adams is one of my all-time favorite living composers. His music, which ranges from full-length operas to concerti, is filled with stunning harmonic worlds, inventive orchestrations, and an irresistible groove that seems innately “American.” (It’s also extremely difficult stuff to play – trust me, I speak from personal experience!) Many of his pieces – especially those from his so-called “minimalist” phase like Short Ride in a Fast Machine, The Chairman Dances, and Harmonium – have become twentieth-century classics. However, a bit lesser known are some of his more recent works from the last twenty years, when Adams began to develop and expand his musical palette.

One such work is Naïve and Sentimental Music, a vast, three-movement “symphony” that was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen in February 1999. Sadly, this piece doesn’t turn up in concert all that often, possibly due to the immense orchestral forces required and the sheer challenge of the music itself. Further, only one commercial recording currently exists (albeit a fantastic one by the LA Phil – posted below), but the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be releasing the work’s second recording in May.

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“The High Road to Kilkenny”

To help celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, here is a video clip from one of my favorite albums – The High Road to Kilkenny, which is a collection of Gaelic songs and dances from the 17th and 18th centuries. This music, which ranges from lively and infectious reels to tender and melancholic ballads, is beautifully performed by François Lazarevitch and the French period instrument group Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien.

It’s a fantastic album overall and if this sample catches your fancy, I’ve posted a Spotify playlist of the entire album below.