I did a short interview with the Orchestra of the Swan media team yesterday in preparation for the orchestra’s Spring Sounds Festival May 27-29. I’m conducting Copland’s Rodeo and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the first concert and they asked me about my relationship with American music. This is going in the orchestra’s current newsletter, but you can read it here as a sneak-peak first:
OOTS- Kenneth, you’re starting off the Spring Sounds Festival with performances of works by Gershwin and Copland. As an American musician living in the UK, do you see yourself in the role of something of an expert on American music?
KW- Quite the opposite! When I first moved here, I was asked to do “something American” on every concert, it seemed. I was very worried that I could end up never doing anything but Bernstein, Copland, Barber and Bernstein, when I need a life that includes lots of Beethoven, Debussy, Mahler, Shostakovich and Bartok.
OOTS- So does that mean you’d rather play Debussy than Copland?
KW- Far from it. I love all the classic American repertoire, and it’s a big part of my musical inheritance. My conducting teacher, Gerhard Samuel, was very close to Copland and was able to share a lot about Copland’s attitudes to the performance of his own music. In spite of occasionally making a point of not doing too much Copland, I’ve conducted Appalachian Spring more than probably any other piece, and I never tire of it.
OOTS- So what do you find most engaging about Copland’s music?
KW- Well, it sounds obvious, but what makes Copland special is the same thing that makes Beethoven and Mahler special: a huge generosity of spirit, combined with an almost unbelievably impressive mastery of his craft.
OOTS- Does the American-ness of his music stir something special in you?
KW- Yes and no. The sense of place and community in his music is deeply moving in the same way that the sense of place and community is deeply moving in Bartok, Sibelius or Elgar. Being born in the States doesn’t give me an advantage to “getting” Copland any more than it puts me at a disadvantage in conducting Shostakovich. Every nation’s music has it’s own language, and not knowing a language can create a feeling of distance, but languages are meant to be learned.
OOTS- So would Copland be just as important without the Americana in his music?
KW- Well, he is! The picturesque, patriotic music he is best known for- Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring- are all works written to give comfort and consolation to the nation in profoundly difficult times. During the Great Depression and World War I, he felt that as an artist, he needed to offer something hopeful and uplifting to his country. His music of that period isn’t so much referencing an American music language as it is creating it- he created a musical mythology of a decent, hopeful America that his music actually helped to bring closer to reality. Before the Depression, his music was much more radical and abstract. Likewise, after the War, he returned to a more abstract, edgy style. However, when felt he had to, he was able to change direction out of a sense of social responsibility and engagement without sacrificing the quality of his music in any way.
OOTS- He sounds almost like a saint when you describe him like that.
KW- Well, in a certain sense that’s a fair word. There is a humbling paradox in Copland’s story- here was a gay, communist, Jewish New York intellectual who lived his creative life largely in service to the idea of a nation whose prejudices could have crushed him had, for instance, his sexual orientation become known. Even today, you seen people on the American Right dismissing people in Copland’s demographic as “not real Americans” and yet without Copland, the entire country’s sense of itself would be so much less vivid. He wrote the soundtrack for this mythological America. Hopefully one day, America will be as good a place as he imagined and depicted. If it ever becomes so, he should get a little bit of the credit.
OOTS- You’re also conducting Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in Spring Sounds. What impresses you most about Gershwin?
KW- Well, there is everything in the world to love about Gershwin- the tunes, the vitality, the humor. I suppose what really sets is classical pieces apart is the extent to which he is able to straddle the worlds of jazz and classical music so masterfully. I think he and Bernstein were the only composers who could do that consistently, and people have been trying to equal them for many generations without much success. When was the last time you heard a new jazz-inspired classical piece that really worked anywhere nearly as well as Rhapsody in Blue, which is almost the original jazz-meets-classical piece?
OOTS- But isn’t it just a bunch of tunes strung together?
KW- But what great tunes!!! I think it really works as a piece. Gershwin isn’t as ostentatiously “crafty” a composer as Copland, but few other than Brahms and Mozart are. There must be a fair bit of craft in Rhapsody in Blue, because it never gets stale.