By Mike Dunham
Anchorage Daily News
Exhibit A in the case that Aaron Copland is NOT a great American composer: the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra’s superb reading of his Clarinet Concerto on Saturday night. Guest conductor Timothy Muffitt had crisp control over all the nuances and intelligently sculpted the material from the hushed opening to the flash-pan finale; soloist Karl Pasch made the licorice stick ache soulfully then dance with intense animation; the orchestra accurately nailed their notes and entrances.
But *yawn* the notes they accurately nailed were the ones Copland wrote.
A composer is one who puts different sounds together, but that’s the easy and not very specific definition. A great composer is a rarer creature, who puts sounds together that stick in the mind and that listeners like to recall. That means he or she comes up with ORIGINAL and ATTRACTIVE melodies; and for that assignment, Copland gets a big, fat zero.
“Hold up,” you say. “What about ‘Appalachian Spring?’ ‘Billy the Kid?’ ‘Rodeo?’ ‘A Lincoln Portrait.’”
What about ‘em? Quick, sing me a tune from any of these that I or anyone else will recognize. Do you notice that Copland didn’t write it? It’s a folk song, a hymn, a Stephen Foster number, a pre-existing piece of music that he re-set — but which he did not write. That may make him a great arranger, but not a composer.
Now, quick, hum me something that Copland DID come up with all on his own and that I or anyone else will recognize. Can’t, can you? That’s the trouble with the Clarinet Concerto. It’s 20 minutes of music you don’t care if you ever hear again and don’t remember 15 seconds into the applause.
(You might make an argument with “Fanfare for the Common Man,” though there’s a good counter-argument to be presented elsewhere. And even if I allow it, that makes him a one-hit wonder.)
Perhaps not everyone shares this opinion. Much more than 15 seconds of loud applause recalled Pasch at the end; he earned it, with as good a performance as one’s likely to hear. The symphony’s much-admired principal clarinetist milked the moment, shaking hands with each of the section leaders. He and his parents have long been fixtures, not only in the local classical music scene, but pop music and education. But it was not a standing ovation, and one had the sense that most or all of the clapping was for Pasch.
Maurice Ravel is a standout from the last generation of classical composers who did write original tunes that remain in wide circulation, “Bolero” for starts. But his “Mother Goose Suite,” which opened the program, isn’t among those. It’s nice enough material, but second drawer. It received a first-rate performance, however. Muffitt seemed to pull the best from the strings, in particular, and — adorned with Andrea Hall’s English horn — this may have been the best-played piece of the night.
Tune-wise, Antonin Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, is pick-of-the-litter stuff from a genuinely great composer whose melodies will remain universally popular for as long as human physiology remains more or less at its present stage of evolution. However, the orchestra often sounded tired and even out-of-phase at times. Not the brass section, however, which was terrific, or Carolyn Valiquette at the timpani — this is a workout for the kettledrummer.
I’m wondering if the guest conductor had time to work out any ideas he might have had for shaping the work, or if rehearsals had to concentrate on more mechanical matters. The slow movement, which is almost a full symphony in itself, dragged tediously in spots. Yet Muffitt must have had something right, because the audience held its coughing spasm — which must have lasted a minute — until the movement had ended, a sign that listeners were engrossed.
Whatever may have been lacking in preparation or execution was made up for by the composer here; the notes of the third movement waltz brand themselves in the brain the first time they’re heard and burn hot all over again whenever re-heard. That’s the magic of a great composer.
The crowd brought back Muffitt three times with a standing ovation, not just because some were putting on coats. And, undoubtedly, some or most of the applause was for Dvorak.
Daily News assistant features editor Mike Dunham can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copland fans wishing to sing something to him on the phone may call 257-4332.