Appalachian Spring Rush Hour Concert Review-American Classical

Ensemble of Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra Players play Copland's Appalachian Srping

The Chicago Rush Hour Concert Series continued early Tuesday evening with a performance that merged forces from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra for a performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring in its original arrangement for just 13 players. Copland’s best known piece, and one of the few American works considered anywhere near the standard repertoire (and even then only for American ensembles), Appalachian Spring is characterized by the optimistic sound, punctured with sober, reflective passages, that distinguishes Copland’s writing and seems to evoke a boundless, but tempered, optimism, and the vast American landscape, a kind of musical civics lesson that gives aesthetic grandeur to the gushing platitudes that we’re taught from childhood about our country. The greatness Copland’s music, however, is such that it may actually convince you of any of those things better than any Fourth of July speech.

John Macfarlane interviewed before Rush Hour Concert

 In an interview conducted prior to the concert, Macfarlane indicated that the piece was not originally titled Appalachian Spring (the title was added after Martha Graham, the choreographer for whom it was written suggested it,) nor was it intended to evoke any specific elements of American landscape, yet people swore that the piece evoked idyllic Appalachian landscapes that Copland used to tell people that’s what he believed, too. Perhaps it’s the benefit of hindsight that allows us to see Copland’s music as a quintessential depiction of America, but this view may not be erroneous. Copland’s idiom was mostly 19th Century, but the music that 19th Century Europe produced and influenced is not really like Copland’s, despite Copland’s use of European forms. In the sense in which it is different from the European tradition, it was always and remains emblematic of a unique American sound.

John Macfarlane conducts Appalachian Spring

The form in which Appalachian Spring is normally encountered is the suite scored for full orchestra used when the work premiered as a ballet in 1944. The performers included all string instruments, with only bassoon, flute, and clarinet representing the horns, in addition to a piano part; no brass was used. In this configuration, the piano assumed a large role, responsible for much of the counterpoint of the piece, played here by Kuang-Hao Huang, who had a brilliant feeing for harmony.

 

Ensemble after performance of

In the setting of St. James’s Cathedral in Chicago’s River North, acoustics were not great, but the quality of the play from the musicians was not seriously diluted. Especially notable playing came from Mimi Tachouet, the Lyric Orchestra’s principal, who possesses a dazzling tone that left nothing to be desired. The upbeat passages were quite galvanizing, despite the lack of the great percussion parts in the orchestral suite (I did miss the use of the triangle when the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” is introduced,) thanks to the dramatic, deeply inflected string playing. The strings’ legato work was also especially impressive, an effect that must be partly credited to conductor John Macfarlane, normally the assistant principal second violin for the Lyric. Macfarlane’s conducting was generally slow (the piece is a pretty slow one anyway,) though he sometimes arbitrarily sped the playing up for effect, the conducting on whole was smooth.

View of St James's Cathedral, Home of Rush Hour Concerts

The Rush Hour Concerts will continue throughout the summer every Tuesday at St. James's Cathedral, 65 E. Huron, Chicago, and are free.

photos credit: Elliott Mandel

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