Naxos DVD reissue provides a powerful encounter with two American icons
It certainly is to be expected that many folks have personal reasons for their eager anticipation of hearing a particular recording, seeing a film, et al. I surely did as soon as I learned that Naxos was releasing a “new” DVD titled “Copland Conducts Copland,” a concert that takes us to the days of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Not only are we treated to the composer leading four of his perennially popular works during America’s bicentennial year, we get the added treat of hearing and seeing the man who commissioned Copland’s Clarinet Concerto: none other than Benny Goodman himself.
The disc itself is a “no-frills” affair in terms of any bonus features, but that caveat is easy to dismiss once one begins this journey. Each work is given a pithy voice-over intro by Copland as he takes the podium (and it should be noted that the accompanying booklet gives more detailed information on each work).
First we get the familiar strains of “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and there is nothing particularly right or wrong about Copland’s conducting or the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s brass and percussion sections’ traversal of the still-stirring themes.
It is in the ensuing “El Salon Mexico” where we get our first treat—not so much in the angular jocularity of the fast sections, but in the central contrasting portion. Here the orchestra produces a warmth and smoothness of ensemble so palpable that it makes one think one had forgotten entirely about this portion of the work. (By 1976, the orchestra was nearing the end of its time with Zubin Mehta at the helm; he had of course made enormous strides since he taking the post–at age 26!–in raising the orchestra’s quality and profile).
For many, yours truly included, the big draw is the Clarinet Concerto, with the venerable Benny Goodman firmly in the spotlight. And why not? He commissioned the work, and Copland crafted an effective synthesis of the “hot” jazz Goodman was famous for with some Brazilian tunes Copland discovered when he was in South America in 1948, working on the composition.
As for me, I’m an erstwhile clarinetist, and while I never had a chance to perform it with orchestra, I wrestled with both the languid legato leaps of the calm opening and the peripatetic cadenza which launches to second half. Viewing the DVD, I couldn’t help but rue the fact that I’d moved to Los Angeles five years too late to see this live; it wasn’t long after my arrival in 1981 that I first saw the LA Philharmonic in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (and only there: Disney Hall was just opening around the time I moved to Madison in 2001). I never had the pleasure of seeing Goodman in person…but I had seen Copland conduct around 1974 in Rochester, NY. Random regrets aside, we can all now enjoy this pairing, and whatever one thinks of Copland’s conducting (which in his own works is always serviceable at the very least), Goodman scarcely seems much past his prime in 1976.
The program closes with just the “Hoe-Down” from Rodeo, followed by three selections from Copland’s unassuming opera, The Tender Land. Once again we have a classical blast from the past joining the orchestra: the Los Angeles Master Chorale, still in those days led by Roger Wagner. There has never been a lack of Copland’s music on records, if not on DVD, but given the nature of this concert and the program’s avoidance of the most common of the larger “greatest hits,” the release is highly recommended to Copland, Goodman and Los Angeles Philharmonic fans alike. The merely curious will find their time well spent, too!