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“Copland and the Cold War” on Campus

Two months ago the Mellon Foundation awarded $1.9 million to three university-based arts presenters: the University Musical Society (University of Michigan/Ann Arbor), Cal Performances (University of California/Berkeley), and the Krannert Center (University of Illinois/Champaign-Urbana).
To my knowledge, Mellon has in recent years been (alas) the only major American foundation to generously fund American orchestras nation-wide. Those orchestras need financial help more than ever. But the new Mellon initiative — targeting innovative campus-based classical music — is prescient. Presenters aren’t burdened with the fixed costs and contractual obligations that encumber orchestras and opera companies. And presenters that serve university communities arguably enjoy the richest programming opportunity in American classical music today.
In the classical music world, arts presenters can be passive conduits for visiting orchestras and string quartets, pianists and violinists. But in ever growing numbers, they are becoming proactive agents of change. The most auspicious change, it has long seemed to me, lies in the realm of synergies with academia. I have seen that work at Stanford University, at the University of Maryland/College Park, at Georgetown, at Wesleyan — and, most recently, at the University of California/Davis.
“Copland and the Cold War,” as presented by UC-Davis’s Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts a few days ago, engaged the services of student singers, an American historian, three music historians, and four instrumentalists associated with the campus community. The students (and also the audience) sang Copland’s prize-winning Communist workers’ song “Into the Street May First!” The Americanist contributed a 10-minute talk on the Popular Front and the Red Scare. The instrumentalists performed two keyboard works — The Cat and the Mouse (1920) and the Piano Variations (1930) — and the late, serial Piano Quartet (1950). Excerpts from The City (1939), a classic, proto-socialist documentary film ingeniously scored by Copland, were screened. Copland’s 1953 interrogation by Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn was re-enacted. All of this was choreographed to track Copland’s paradigmatic artistic odyssey: how an experimental modernist, schooled in Paris, became a patriotic populist and fellow traveler on the left — only to find himself in the 1950s estranged from the “new audience” he had so ambitiously courted.
I have produced “Copland and the Cold War” five times. Because it is collaborative, the show is always different. At Wesleyan, Ron Schatz’s talk focused on Paul Robeson. At UC-Davis, Kathryn Olmstead stressed McCarthy’s chronic mendacity. At Georgetown University, “Copland” linked with six courses; dozens of students wrote reviews. Not the least advantage of university-based programming is inquisitive audiences: discussion becomes integral to the event.
Certainly my own experience of Copland has been transformed by my five “Copland and the Cold War” experiences. “More talented than he realized,” Roger Sessions once quipped. What Sessions meant, surely, is that Copland the modernist was a better composer than Copland the populist. I agree. The Piano Variations, more than ever, seem to me a high achievement. But I find Copland a synthetic populist — a populist by choice, compared to born populists like Gershwin or Revueltas. To Copland’s way of thinking, Gershwin and Revueltas were overly “intuitive,” insufficiently schooled; they did not fully engage in the compositional act. But compared to the Concerto in F or Caminos, Copland’s Piano Concerto and El Salon Mexico seem to me “over-composed”; they disclose artifice.
Copland’s decision to seek a broader public, and the fervor with which he urged his colleagues to do the same, are beyond praise. He was unselfishly impelled by an idealistic sense of social responsibility. At the same time, in retrospect one may surmise that, aesthetically, it wasn’t altogether in his bones.
“Copland and the Cold War” ends either with the Piano Quartet or the Piano Fantasy (1957). Copland’s compatriot on the left Harold Clurman likened the former work to “the quiet preceding or following an atom bomb attack . . . the voice of our inner fear, an echo of the secret trepidations in all our hears as we look out upon the bleak horizon of a world in bondage to its illusions.” Heard in the context of the McCarthy interrogation, in which Copland awkwardly perjured himself, the Piano Quartet sounds as chilling as Clurman supposed.
The Piano Fantasy even more poignantly concludes the Copland odyssey. It is his belated return to the unfettered Piano Variations of his youth, reconsidered as an epic valedictory he could not quite carry off. In the hands of a master pianist like Ben Pasternack, the sporadic waywardness of this 30-miute score, juxtaposed with its authentic grandeur, intensifies the act of self-portraiture.
I write these reflections in a hotel room in Chicago, where the University of Chicago Presents this week hosts a three-day Spanish Festival: “Beyond Flamenco: Finding Spain in Music.” The participants include three eminent Spanish visitors — the pianist Pedro Carbone, the conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez, the novelist Antonio Munoz-Molina — and also the university orchestra and motet choir. The schedule incorporates classroom visits, a master class, and a colloquium. WFMT, Chicago’s singular classical music station, will broadcast two of the concerts and produce 15 hours of recorded Spanish music with extensive commentary by the university’s guests. All this supports a new world of classical music programming — and the reasons Mellon’s investment is an enlightened twenty-first century move.

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