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Storming Into a New Century with Aaron Copland


Aaron Copland (1900-1990), the quintessential American composer whose roots were Russian-Jewish (his father changed his name from Kaplan to Copland in England while en route to America), would have been 100 years old on November 14.

Just in time for his centennial, the latest version of "The Second Hurricane" premiered November 5 at the 92nd Street Y as part of a national series commemorating the life of the man called America's greatest composer of all time. A "school-play opera" with a social conscience, "The Second Hurricane" proved seminal, recalling the symbolic typhoon of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Mahagonny" and presaging the "final wind" climax of Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock" (both staged by Orson Welles in 1937). The most beautiful number in the piece, sung by a character named Queenie, inspired not only the opening of "Ballad for Americans" by Earl Robinson (whose only composition teacher was Copland) but the vocalise (a passage where the voice sings vowels, not words) in "I Hate Music" by Leonard Bernstein, who supervised the Boston premiere of the opera in 1942 and revived it for television and on Columbia Records, substituting his own narration for the stilted dialogue in 1960.

In Edwin Denby's 1936 libretto, six children board an airplane, itself an adventure, to try to rescue flood victims, nearly becoming victims themselves. Their experience becomes a voyage of discovery as they find salvation in solidarity — "an idea of what life could be like with everybody pulling together," according to the libretto. A parable on tolerance and the innate goodness of human beings in adversity, "Hurricane" stands in stark, idealistic contrast to such cynical later works as "Lord of the Flies" and "Survivor."

The November 5 premiere featured a new version of the libretto written by composer-writer Susan Kander, the niece of the composer John Kander, and commissioned by Copland's publisher Boosey & Hawkes. The location was changed to "somewhere in the South" — near Biloxi, Miss. The populist message of "everybody as good as everybody else" was brought out by a spirited cast of Hispanic, Asian, African and Caucasian Americans, including a crop of young, good-looking soloists, and featured the Young People's Chorus of New York City, which was well-prepared by director Francisco J. Nez and chorus master Cara Suzanne Tasher. They were staged by Marcia Milgrom Dodge and accompanied by members of the Westchester Philharmonic "and young instrumentalists" conducted by Paul Lustig Dunkel.

Because Mr. Dunkel has been an ardent champion of new American music, it is sad to have to report that on this occasion he seemed to have had his head mostly in the score. Cues, tempi and ensemble were often ragged, with the orchestra frequently covering the soloists. Worse, the unintended condescension of the weakest portions of the libretto remain intact: A young black boy named Jefferson (referred to as "a country boy" in the program, "colored" in the script) is first denied help because the supplies are intended "for real people." Later, his house is destroyed by the flood and he is saved from drowning by one of the white children who then exults in his own heroism, while no one seems to entertain a thought about what will now happen to Jeff or his family.

This is precisely the kind of callously condescending liberalism that Leonard Bernstein and others were accused of during the 1970s under the rubric "radical chic." (It should be noted that Bernstein was sensitive enough to delete Jeff's black dialect in his 1960 version.)

Copland's centennial is being honored Around the nation. Jamie Bernstein Thomas, Bernstein's daughter, and Michael Barrett and Ed Schloth together have created another new version of "Hurricane," which premiered November 10 at the Francis W. Parker School as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Why yet another version? In an e-mail sent to this writer, Ms. Thomas wrote:

"So that a) the plot would make sense, b) something vaguely dramatic would actually happen, and c) [to] bring it up to the present in a way that would be fun and relevant to modern kids."

The work, which Ms. Thomas says was partly inspired by the "Blair Witch Project," still has the power to move. "I wish you could hear 'Queenie's Song,'" she wrote. "I burst into tears every single time Julie Ness sings it."

On view through January 2 at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, N.Y., is "Aaron Copland's America" containing visual and sonic artifacts of aspects of the composer's life that he took pains to obscure during the McCarthyism of the 1950s. When I interviewed Copland in 1974, he seemed not to remember (or perhaps he did not want to remember) much of anything from the 1930s. It took the prodding of Vivian Perlis, the most respected oral historian of American music today, and the research of his biographer, Howard Pollack, to put together the full portrait we now have of him.

The Houston Grand Opera is staging a concert version of Copland's full-length opera, 1954's "The Tender Land." Set on a farm in the Midwest, the opera was originally commissioned for television by NBC but later rejected by the network. It will be performed by young artists from the Houston Grand Opera Studio and a 14-piece chamber ensemble of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra.

Additionally, the Spring 2000 issue of American Music features two articles illuminating further aspects of Copland: the American Indian and homosexual influences on and in his work, including "The Second Hurricane." There is also a live tribute concert by the acclaimed New Jersey Symphony Orchestra slated to be aired on National Public Radio on November 18 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Mr. Lehrman is the editor of Opera Today, founder of The Jewish Music Theater of Berlin, music director of North Shore Synagogue in Syosset and composer of eight operas, six of them on Jewish themes.

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