Each generation of American composers is faced with developing an authentic symphonic voice in a country of immigrants that looks longingly back to Mother Europe. Will we ever have our Beethoven?
Wrong question at the Philadelphia Orchestra's post-Thanksgiving concert Friday at the Kimmel Center. Aaron Copland spoke for World War II-era America with his Appalachian Spring ballet. Samuel Barber bridged the gap between his native (and genteel) West Chester and tough 1960s modernism with his Piano Concerto. Jake Heggie showed how the dust settled in the current generation of neo-tonalists with a suite to his excellent 2010 opera Moby-Dick.
All pieces felt new under Cristian Macelaru. Actually, the Barber concerto usually feels new because it's based on less-than-memorable themes but also allowed guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson to shoot off some pianistic fireworks that vanquished memories of past performances by John Browning and Keith Jarrett. That's necessary. Though most Barber pieces feel rooted in a particular place, the Piano Concerto's elaborate first movement feels unmoored, lacks the composer's usual sense of sweep, and seemed bent on wearing the orchestral outer garments of Bela Bartok — whether or not they fit. Ohlsson beautifully acknowledged the second movement's lyricism and, in the bravura final movement, gave stature to the music without overselling it. Macelaru provided a hair-trigger accompaniment.
The conductor — familiar from past seasons as the orchestra's conductor in residence — was quite the hero on other fronts: Macelaru assembled the 20-minute suite from Heggie's Moby-Dick opera, mainly showcasing the score's considerable atmospheric effects. Though there were some boisterous interludes characterizing the ship's crew, you mainly had a sense of an endless though passive ocean that both floats and sinks its victims without benevolence or malevolence.
The suite only hints at the opera's riches — it's best considered like a movie trailer — though Copland's Appalachian Spring has always led an enviable double life outside of the original Martha Graham choreography of the ballet. Though the usual Appalachian Spring ballet suite cuts about eight minutes of music from the original score, the version heard on Friday restored everything, but in an orchestration that's far larger than the original 13-instrument pit band. The restored music isn't of great consequence, but gives shadier contrasts to the music's optimistic brightness, plus edgier rhythms that Macelaru emphasized as a prickly undercurrent. In writing the piece, Copland had one scenario in mind, but choreographer Graham had another.
Which did Macelaru go for? Even having seen a film of Graham dancing her version, I couldn't tell. But Macelaru made the piece about real people — especially with the orchestra's high-personality incidental solos — rather than jingoistic figures on an Americana landscape. Though I'm a bigger fan of Copland's more modernist works like Connotations, this Appalachian Spring was the most convincing performance I've heard.
Postscript: I once had occasion to ask Copland why he chose the traditional Shaker tune "Simple Gifts" for the last third of Appalachian Spring. "It was in public domain" was his refreshingly unsentimental answer. So now you know.