The Copland-Sessions Concerts: A History
Copland & Sessions: A
Modernizing Ballet Mécanique
Re-Creating the Copland-Sessions Concerts
by Michael Boriskin
With its Weill Recital Hall program on Saturday afternoon, April 1st, "A Copland-Sessions Sampler," Music from The Copland House offers an intriguing opportunity to re-visit several of America's leading creative figures at the very start of their careers, and re-claim other worthwhile yet forgotten composers and works. In assembling our program, selected from the very works first heard some 70 years ago on the Copland-Sessions Concerts, our ensemble wanted to convey a sense of what those original concerts were like by balancing the familiar and the obscure in a variety of styles.
Financial constraints on Copland and Sessions necessitated the use of small forces, and so their programs included many solo and duo works. In striving for inclusiveness, their concerts tended to offer shorter works by a greater number of composers. The best-known work on our program is Copland's only piano trio, his unusual Vitebsk ("Study on Jewish Themes"), which shares the spiky rhythmic drive, austere rhetoric, and earnest intentions of his other early Modernist scores of the same period, the Symphonic Ode and Piano Variations. We will also present one of Sessions's most impressive early works, the lush, long-lined Piano Sonata No. 1. (Neither Copland nor Sessions viewed the series as merely a vehicle to promote their own music, and only very sparingly programmed their works.) We wanted a large, substantial work to close the program and chose the almost-Brahmsian Concerto for Piano, Clarinet, and String Quartet, Opus 2 by Roy Harris; one of Harris' strongest compositions, and among his most-often heard works, it helped to establish his early reputation as one of America's most gifted young composers.
The prodigious Carlos Chavez was among the first of many Latin American composers closely associated with Copland, and we are including his dramatic, little-known Sonatina for Violin and Piano. Walter Piston, who became one of 20th century Americas most important musical figures, is represented by his bracing, masterful Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet, and Bassoon. Israel Citkowitz is perhaps best remembered today as an admired teacher, but he was a gifted composer whose music has virtually vanished from concert life; Music from The Copland House offers his attractive, touching Five Songs on James Joyce (settings of love lyrics from the poetry cycle, "Chamber Music"). Though Robert Russell Bennett was Broadways foremost arranger (working with Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and many others), he began life as an admired, accomplished composer, and we are excited about giving a rare performance of one of his concert works, the delightful Two Pieces for Flute and Piano.
Building any concert program means making difficult choices. Condensing all of the music heard at the Copland-Sessions Concerts into just one program was especially frustrating. Every composition we programmed meant excluding at least two other compelling, exhilarating works. (We eliminated string quartets on the belief that they were better left to groups of string players who played only that literature.) The original Copland-Sessions Concerts were striking for the colorful, diverse array of composers and works presented, and reflected the high ideals, artistic seriousness, and good musical taste and judgment of its two esteemed directors.
Pianist Michael Boriskin is the Artistic Director of The Copland Heritage Association and Co-Director of its resident ensemble, Music from The Copland House.