Lena Corazon

Flights of Fancy

Tag: classical music

Remembering Aaron Copland, American Composer

Today would have been American composer Aaron Copland’s 114th birthday, which gives me an excuse to finally blog about one of my favorite classical artists of all time. Most people may not realize it, but they already know one of his most famous works, Rodeo, from the “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner” commercial that seemed ubiquitous in the 90s. Remember this?

Copland was born in Brooklyn on November 14, 1900. His story is, in many ways, a strikingly American tale: the son of Jewish immigrants who later became a composer of music that encapsulates the American spirit. He studied music in Paris between 1917 and 1921, part of the larger community of American expatriates including Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. When he returned to the United States, he collaborated with other young composers, and entered Alfred Stieglitz’s community of artists. Copland, like many other artists of his generation, was inspired by Stieglitz’s belief that “the American artist should reflect ‘the ideas of American democracy.'”

"AaronCopland" by Gov - http://memory.loc.gov/music/copland/phot/phot0098v.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AaronCopland.JPG#mediaviewer/File:AaronCopland.JPG

“AaronCopland” by Gov – http://memory.loc.gov/music/copland/phot/phot0098v.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In keeping with that ideal, Copland’s work, particularly between the 1930s and 1940s, was deliberately accessible, written in what he referred to as the “vernacular” style. The landscape of the American West became an inspiration for many of his pieces, including ballet scores Rodeo and Billy the Kid, as well as his Fanfare for the Common Man and the Third Symphony.

Copland wrote an impressive array of music,  from symphonies and ballets to film scores and even an opera. My favorite, however, will always be Appalachian Spring. In it, he draws on the famed Shaker melody, “‘Simple Gifts.” At just over 30 minutes long, it is a slice of heaven. Below is my favorite recording, performed by the San Francisco Symphony and led by composer Michael Tilson Thomas. If you’d like to see footage from the original 1944 production of the ballet, check out this video clip.

One of the coolest things about Appalachian Spring is the way that it has been used and remixed by other artists to give rise to new works, in the same way that Copland himself draws on the Shaker song. Echoes can be heard in Shaker Loops by modern composer John Adams, as seen in this performance from the Ciompi Quartet below.

Likewise, composer John Williams pulled from Appalachian Spring when he wrote”Air and Simple Gifts” for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, where it was performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill and Gabriela Montero.

Copland is remembered for his talents as a composer and conductor, as well as his role as a teacher and mentor for countless young musicians. It was the latter role that led to his nickname as the “Dean of American Composers.”

For me, Copland’s work evokes both nostalgia for the past and unbounded optimism for the future, music that is not only timeless and beautiful, but evokes the dignity of the human spirit. I leave you with his Fanfare for the Common Man, introduced by Leonard Bernstein, and conducted by the composer himself (music starts at 2:02).

Anyone else a fan of Copland’s work? If you’re interested in more information about him, including photos, news clippings, correspondence, and other archival treasures, check out this awesome collection from the Library of Congress.

Classical Meets Bluegrass in the Goat Rodeo Sessions

I’ve got this thing for fiddles. My friends and family don’t really understand it — what’s a city gal doing listening to bluegrass and country music? Sure, they’re pretty broad-minded with their music. They listen to rock and pop, classical and jazz, but down-home, folksy, Americana music with fiddles and banjos? Definitely not their cup of tea.

So when the whole hipster thing started up, I was delighted. I can do without all the ironic facial hair and lumberjack plaid, but the hipster penchant for folk music is right up my alley.  From Mumford and Sons to The Civil Wars, the twang of the banjo and toe-tapping sounds of the fiddle have gone mainstream.

The musicians of the "Goat Rodeo Sessions" (Source: Classical Archives)

Recently, I stumbled upon an amazing collaboration between Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo, mandolin), Edgar Meyer (bass, piano, gamba), and Chris Thile (mandolin, guitar, gamba). The collaboration is known as “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” and has become one of my favorite albums to date. According to Wikipedia, “The term ‘goat rodeo‘ refers to a chaotic situation where many things have to go right in order for it to work, a reference to the unusual and challenging aspects of blending classical and bluegrass music.”

The result, however, is nothing short of fantastic. It calls to mind the work of earlier classical composers like Aaron Copland, who wove folk-inspired songs of the “common man” into his work (for those of you in the US who remember the “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner” campaign, the theme song was taken from Copland’s “Rodeo“).

The song below, the first track off of the Goat Rodeo Sessions album, just plain makes me feel good, and the video brings a smile to my face. There’s nothing like watching four amazing musicians perform together, and look like they’re having a blast doing it.

Has anyone stumbled upon awesome new music lately? Rave and recommend in the comments below!

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