at Petrillo Music Shell

July 26

When he died two years ago at age 90, Aaron Copland left a durable legacy, the richest and least flawed of any American composer. A true child of this century, he experimented with newfangled ideas at the outset of his career, but by the late 30s his own voice was emerging, one with a strong, indelibly American accent.

Most people readily recognize that voice in Copland’s ballet scores and other programmatic pieces. Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and A Lincoln Portrait, all composed in the 40s, helped establish his popularity far beyond art and intellectual circles. Exuberant as a square dance, expansive as the plains, somber as a New England church, they are deservedly classics of Americana. Copland also wrote highly evocative movie scores in the 40s, one of which, for The Heiress, garnered him an Oscar. This voice is also apparent in his nonprogrammatic music; he, along with Stravinsky, was consistently successful at making even his abstract music accessible.

It took Copland some time to find this voice. In Paris, as Nadia Boulanger’s first full-time American pupil, he dabbled in serialism. One result was the deeply moving, dissonant Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, in which Boulanger made her American debut as organist in 1924. It was panned. One celebrated New York conductor opined: “If a young man at the age of 24 can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder.”

Copland was never again as deliberately didactic and elitist. His subsequent more abstract works are tempered by simplicity and populist themes and materials. They are also animated, like his dance music, by a lively sense of rhythm. Most of them, as Virgil Thomson pointed out, “have long served American composers as models of procedure and as storehouses of precious device.” Yet Copland’s “more serious” output remains obscure. His socially conscious pastoral opera The Tender Land, for instance, probably deserves more revivals than many of Menotti’s pseudo-American theater pieces. (Chicago Opera Theater and Lyric Opera, here’s your chance.)

Another unjustly neglected masterpiece is his Third Symphony, which was given a belated Grant Park Symphony premiere last weekend. Composed in 1946, toward the end of that amazingly creative period in his career, it is the most original American symphony since Ives’s third. As sturdily constructed and elegantly varnished as a Shaker wardrobe, it fulfills its formal ambitions better than any symphony by Harris, Piston, or Sessions. Though folksy, the music has a quintessential Americanness that doesn’t seem at all forced. Characteristic of Copland at his most inspired, this large-scale symphony builds excitement through conflicting rhythms, moving from nearly motionless, suspense-filled moods to rollicking dances.

Yet it’s Copland’s inventive touches and the music’s unfolding logic that rivet a listener’s attention. In the opening movement the themes pass from violins to winds to trombones, gradually surging to a climax capped by crashing cymbals. The process is then repeated, the themes and instrumentation deftly varied, and ends in a chime-filled surge. As if to atone for the prideful outbursts, the music then quiets down into a beatific calm.

The second movement recalls Copland’s familiar wild-west depictions. Country hoedowns alternate with folksy waltzes in a joyous celebration of American vitality. Then, almost like Dvorak, Copland introduces a pious, nostalgic set of long-breathed variations, some based on Quaker hymns–as if to unveil the spiritual side of American life. The movement concludes on a note of mystical transcendence.

The symphony’s finale incorporates Copland’s signature piece, Fanfare for the Common Man, which he wrote in 1942 as a wartime salute. His genius is revealed in how he transformed it for this more serious, formal work. The high winds softly, then the brass and percussion triumphantly, herald uplift. An energetic jazzy theme then follows. The fanfare motif–now fragmented, now intertwined–can be heard throughout, an ingenious embedding that almost rivals Beethoven’s use of the “Ode to Joy” theme in his Ninth Symphony. Toward the end the fanfare returns in full glory, its jingoism softened and purified into euphonious rejoicing.

The Grant Park Symphony’s performance was guided by Catherine Comet, the French-born head of the Grand Rapids Symphony and a recipient of the coveted Seaver/NEA grant for young American conductors. Both she and the Grant Park concert programmers deserve a hand for reacquainting us with this symphony. The performance was zesty and forceful, though by no means first-rate. Allowances must be made for the usual Grant Park nuisances, such as traffic noise and overamplified mikes, and for the short rehearsal time, but the string playing still could have been less muddled and the brasses and winds less shrill.

The concert’s first half included the Schumann Piano Concerto, with Christopher O’Riley as the soloist. Though a fluent and fastidious pianist, he overemphasized the lingering prettiness of the music at the expense of its emotional yearning. Comet and the orchestra patiently accompanied him on the long, romantic, gloom-and-doom march. Also on the program was Living It Up by the Detroit-born Michael Ruszczynski, a happy-go-lucky homage to Broadway and Bernstein. It’s skillful, but it’s easy-listening.