Tavis Smiley gave an inspired, one-of-a-kind performance of Aaron Copland’s iconic “Lincoln Portrait” Saturday evening, as the Santa Monica Symphony unequivocally demonstrated why they are among the best community orchestras in America. Maestro Allen Robert Gross brought out the best in the musicians, as well as in the art of each of the distinctive progenitors of American music featured on the program: Copland, William Grant Still, and Charles Ives.
The all-American program also included Ives’ Variations on “America,” Still’s Symphony No.1, “Afro-American,” and Copland’s “Billy the Kid” Suite.
Charles Ives originally wrote Variations for the organ at the irreverent age of 17, but the popular version we know today was orchestrated by William Schuman; they are a masterpiece of musical Americana. The trumpet solo was superbly played with light attacks and perfectly clean execution, and the French horn solo was broad and warm. The woodwinds had a serious workout, and all of the soloists were up to the task. The full ensemble passages were thoroughly blended into a single orchestral voice. The orchestra had a rich sound generally, and Ives’ Variations made for a rousing opening.
An American original, African-American composer, and one-time Los Angeles resident, William Grant Still provided another distinctive aspect of our musical heritage. Still merged the music of his African-American heritage with traditional European classical forms to forge unique treatments of harmony and melody that we now recognize as defining elements of classic American style. Ray Knapp’s pre-concert lecture was fascinating, especially the story behind the “I got rhythm” theme and Still’s friendship with Gershwin. You’ve never heard the blues like this — an original 12-bar blues, first stated in the English horn and developed in symphonic style in a wonderful multicultural musical journey. Very warm, very comfortable. Still’s mother had wanted him to go to medical school, but fortunately for us his scholarship turned to music (and I surmise that our orchestra musicians have all been down this path and found the perfect compromise!).
The second half was all-Copland. The finale was, of course, “Lincoln Portrait,” and the emblematic “Billy the Kid” Suite opened. Copland’s subject, including authentic cowboy tunes, was suggested by dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, and this familiar suite was later extracted from the full ballet score. The orchestra convincingly portrayed the characteristic vastness of Copland’s style. Of course, the subject demands a percussive gun battle, and the timpanist and Gross were perfectly in synch as the ruckus erupted and gradually subsided. The shots boomed in the large auditorium; it was most effective. The orchestral celebration scene was delightful, and the closing again invoked Copland’s unique tonal palettes and beloved “prairie sound” most effectively. It was really beautiful and well played.
Smiley, our own PBS star commentator and writer, was great in the role of the narrator of “Lincoln Portrait,” in which Copland assembled excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches along with characteristic musical references from American folk to form this inspired patriotic work.
I usually find Copland’s music so compelling that it draws my attention away from the speaker, particularly after the long orchestral introduction, but Smiley’s reading was strong and vibrant, and readily captured my ear. His familiar persona and depth of expression combined with his unique vocal manner and informed portrayal to make for a stirring experience. His interpretation had heart, and we vicariously felt his understanding of the words; the reading was soulful. I hope that Smiley performs it again.
Copland’s own advice on how to listen to music intelligently is simple; he asks: 1) “Are you hearing everything that is going on?” and 2) “Are you really sensitive to it?” Gross, Smiley, and the musicians all gave us the experience we needed to apply these criteria for ourselves. To help us with the first question, Gross cued every detail of the music, and Smiley equally well brought out the nuances of the text. Who can really answer the second question? For this performance anyway, Copland’s and Lincoln’s brilliance were undeniable, and displayed magnificently by the performers. Their sensitivity to the art and message spilled over into the audience, uniting us through the words and sounds of the greatest of American ideals. As Gross pointed out from the podium, the message is both “timeless and timely.”
The Santa Monica Symphony is a great orchestra and a beacon for the community. Bravo!