We are inundated by anniversaries to jog our musical memories, and this year is the year of Aaron Copland, born 100 years ago. To celebrate the occasion, Copland festivals are sprouting up around the country like dandelions in the spring.
Copland has become an American icon. The music of the kid from Brooklyn, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, has become the torchbearer of what is today considered the best in echt-American music. His imitators have been legion.
But this image is based at best on a half-dozen of his many compositions, including A Lincoln Portrait, his three popular ballets, some film scores and a couple of other works. Copland tried his hand in many areas, ranging from 1920s jazz, as in the Piano Concerto or the Piano Variations, to fraternizing with serialism, as in the Piano Quartet of 1950. It was this quartet, performed by pianist Fritz Whang, violinist Katherine Manker, violist Hugh Partridge and cellist Brent Wissick, that opened an all-Copland program on Sunday afternoon, March 5, sponsored by UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of music under the auspices of its William S. Newman Artists Series.
Unfortunately, Copland’s flirtation with serialism is unconvincing. The composer very determinedly starts with a series, although of only 11 rather than 12 notes, but he cannot help himself. Before you know it, he is sneaking back to tonality and melody, especially in the second and third movements. The performance was quite well-balanced, although Whang’s playing was sometimes too percussive, especially in the slow third movement.
Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, composed in 1949-50, received an outstanding performance by soprano Mary Gayle Greene and pianist Thomas Warburton. Copland was not happiest composing for voice, and the set suffers somewhat from a sameness of approach, which can dull its effect–then, of course, Dickinson’s metric and thematic monotony doesn’t inspire variety either. Greene’s musicality managed, however, to infuse each song with an individuality that kept the performance exciting, even though the texts–so shocking when first published–sound a little quaint today.
The program ended with that perennial crowd pleaser, the ballet Appalachian Spring, conducted by UNC-CH’s Tonu Kalam in its original version for 13 instruments. When Copland composed Appalachian Spring for Martha Graham for a performance at the Library of Congress, the small ensemble was all that could be squeezed into the limited space. This is folksy, romantic music, and Kalam gave it a very romantic reading. Unfortunately, his excessive gyrations on the podium distracted and detracted from the performance.
With such a small ensemble, balance is critical, and Hill Hall’s abominable acoustics mean the balance you get depends on where you sit. Where we sat, the flute was overpowering, while someone sitting just a few rows away complained that he hadn’t been able to hear the flute at all. The concert planners, who titled it “A Copland Album,” did a great service by featuring the composer’s less popular music. Since we have nine more months to celebrate, let’s hope that there will be more Copland explorations offered.
Letter to a prodigyLast Tuesday at Meredith College, we heard a piano recital by 15-year-old prodigy Sergiy Komirenko, originally from Ukraine, now residing in Raleigh. Reviews of wunderkinder tend to be adulatory, if not downright saccharine. During this performance, however, we were reminded of a comment once made by the great pianist Artur Rubinstein. When talking about the great crop of young pianists, he said: “They have a marvelous technique, wonderful. But when they are through, I ask them: But when will you start making music?”–which prompted our open-letter review.
We wanted to address this review to you personally because most of the time when you play the piano, you get a prize. Being so talented can be pretty isolating and skew your perspective on yourself. Since you were 4, people have been telling you how great you are; by now, you probably don’t even get a thrill from it anymore. So we’re going to pass over that part pretty quickly, and will offer you instead some suggestions on how you, a young man with tremendous hands and spectacular pianistic technique, can become a true musician.
You certainly are a young man in a hurry–or at least some of the people closest to you are in a hurry for you. We are impressed by the number of competitions you have entered and won, both in Russia and here. But are you ever not preparing for a competition? Even this recital was described as a preparation for the upcoming National Association of Teachers of Music competition.
Let’s talk about this hurrying for a moment. We noticed in your performance that you tended to rush through rests, almost as if the silences, when you weren’t actually pressing the keys, didn’t count as part of the music. Several things can contribute to this tendency: nerves, fatigue, breaks in concentration and, yes, boredom. Those pieces you played the other night you’ve probably played hundreds of times in order to get every measure just so. But do you still like them–much less love them? You certainly didn’t play them as if you did.
What would happen if you took a year or two off from competitions? Preparing for them doesn’t allow you to slow down and discover music at your own pace. If you hadn’t been preparing to compete, you might have learned dozens of new and different works in the time you spent perfecting your competition program. Every day, sight-read a piece you don’t know; choose composers with whom you aren’t familiar; play works that aren’t necessarily technically challenging–unlike the Prokofiev Toccata you played–but musically challenging. Play Mozart. Collect your favorites, the pieces you like, that give you goose bumps or make you want to cry. Then ask: “How can I make an audience feel the same way I do about this piece?” Take some time to find your own “voice.” The closer you get to becoming a pro, the more judges and audiences alike will search for the soul in your playing. Incidentally, don’t obsess about the couple of mistakes you made when you lost your place in the Bach fugue or when your right hand locked up in the Liszt/Paganini Campanella transcription.
Take time every day to listen to CDs of pieces you know well, and especially of those you don’t. And don’t just listen to piano music. Think about how you’d make those performances more convincing, more sparkling, more intense. But most of all, just listen and absorb. This should help you with dynamics, one of your weak points. You play piano delicately, forte crashingly. You just don’t have much to do with the innumerable gradations in between. Through dynamics, you can communicate how and why a phrase or a whole piece goes where it’s going. Practice “Bidlo” from Pictures at an Exhibition so that an audience could calculate the distance of that oxcart from measure to measure.
Great musicians have a special way of communicating and bonding with their audiences. We think you have tremendous potential. But keep your eye on the real prize: Set your sights on becoming a great musician, not just a brilliant pianist.