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Friday, April 19, 2019

Aaron Copland, Billy the Kid, Grohg, Complete Ballets, Detroit Symphony, Leonard Slatkin

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was more than simply a US Nationalist composer (of course nationalist here not anything to do with the Aryan White Supremacy kind, thankfully), yet of course his most famous works draw upon American themes and folklore. Today's program features one of the famous Nationalist ballet scores, and an earlier ballet from the '20s that comes out of his cosmopolitan Parisian days. Billy the Kid (Complete Ballet) and Grohg (One Act Ballet) (Naxos 8.559862) give us a nicely contrasting look at Copland the American Folkloric and Copland the Modernist. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin sound well situated and fully committed to making these scores breathe life.

Copland perhaps like Bernstein managed to have lots of success yet too like Bernstein put a wealth of musical ideas into most anything he did. So the Billy the Kid score gave us a first look at his Americanist folksy side. It is accessible to those who fare well with a programmatic underpinning, yet Copland's lyric gift shows itself along with some touches that tell us he was not looking backwards but sought rather to present the present musically. Honestly Billy the Kid has never been among my very favorite Copland, and it is still the case that I might rather hear the "Piano Variations" or "Appalachian Spring." On the other hand this Slatkin version is nicely dynamic and reminds me that there is plenty to like nonetheless. Some of the thematic aspects sound very good to me now that there is no pressure to approve or not, and Slatkin gives them the airing they deserve.

Most interesting to me is the presence of the 1925 Grohg, which informs us that he at age 25 had already developed a remarkable maturity and poise. The music has currency and lyrical futurism in plenty for us to discover, plus a jazzy element, a ragged syncopation that marks him of his time yet allows him to express originality.

The score is complicated, well orchestrated and in the end worthy, memorable, a real find.

It is an offering anyone interested in Copland and the US compositional 20th century will find stimulating and worthwhile. Sincerely recommended.

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