It can't have been planned as a memorial to Aaron Copland, because it was announced long before his death last month at age 90. But that was the effect of Friday's Utah Symphony concert, concluding as it did with a resounding performance of the Copland Third Symphony, almost certainly one of the handful of masterpieces by which he is likely to be best remembered.
It wasn't always that way. But over the last few decades this epic work has come to be seen as not only that but possibly the capstone of what might be called his populist period. Not only does it work as abstract music - which, according to the composer, is how it was conceived; it also breathes a spirit of Americana equalled only by the ballets "Billy the Kid" and, most of all, "Appalachian Spring," with which, in terms of musical language, it has much in common.Happily that spirit was evident in Friday's performance, purposefully directed by guest conductor Andrew Litton. Maybe too purposefully at the outset, which might have opened up a bit more. But nowhere was there any doubt where the music was headed, from the striding expanse of the first movement, with its "Appalachian Spring"-type opening, to the triumph of the finale, a fantasia, as it were, on Copland's own "Fanfare for the Common Man," with all the vigor and grandeur one associates with that celebrated opus.
Here the brass blew heroically and the timpani and bass drum thumped mightily. Yet Litton did not slight the symphony's lyricism and depth, whether amid the locomotive power of the second movement (which, I must confess, has always seemed to me to suggest the westward expansion) or the emotional ambiguity of the third, with its energetic dance episode.
Occasionally one missed the last ounce of security and integration - for example, the transition to the second-movement trio, less naturally bridged here than it might have been. But the overall effect was good enough to prompt the biggest ovation of the night, and that following outstanding performances of Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto.
The latter, of course, was part of a planned memorial, standing as the third Prokofiev work in a row on as many subscription programs, the last two in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. Last week, in the First Piano Concerto, the soloist was Yefim Bronfman. This week it was concertmaster Ralph Matson, who usually deals from strength in this composer's music.
Here he turned in a contained yet affecting performance, more snakelike and oily than one is used to hearing in the Scherzo but suitably trenchant in the interludes, here with an interestingly dark substratum, and achingly beautiful in the subdued statement of the finale.
Against this Litton presided over an accompaniment of remarkable sensitivity and restraint, being careful not to overwhelm the soloist but at the same time deftly highlighting such things as the viola tremolo at the outset (cunningly echoed on the violin at the concerto's close) and the "Love for Three Oranges"-type tread that opens the finale.
By contrast, he and the orchestra brought an impassioned sweep to "Romeo and Juliet," in a performance notable for the thrust of its climaxes and the lyricism of the love music. Yet both the thrust and the lyricism were always controlled, whether in the athletic resumption of the conflict or the heartfelt return of the lovers' theme, its phrases sometimes artfully held back.
In short, a disciplined account that was nonetheless full of romantic feeling. Which is pretty much the way I described the Brahms First he debuted with here three seasons ago. It's good to know some things don't change.
Leonard Slatkin's new RCA recording of the Copland Third joins Bernstein's and Copland's own (Philips) among the finest discings this symphony has ever had, capturing nearly all its moods to perfection.
For Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," I am still drawn to the older Toscanini (Music & Arts), Karajan (London), Munch (RCA) and Muti (EMI) recordings, with Perlman (EMI), Stern (CBS) and Mintz all safe recommendations in the Prokofiev.