Last Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of Aaron Copland's birth, an occasion that should have been marked by a national celebration of some sort. The Concert Artists of Baltimore did its part to honor the composer locally -- and help people forget about chads for a little while -- by devoting half of its program Sunday evening at the College of Notre Dame to Copland, and making every note count.
Artistic director Edward Polochick led the instrumental portion of this orchestral/choral organization in a remarkably affectionate and affecting account of Copland's most beloved work, the suite from the 1945 ballet "Appalachian Spring." It's hard to go wrong with this masterfully constructed, infectiously tuneful music, but it's also hard to make such a well-worn work sound thoroughly fresh. Polochick and his forces did just that.
With about two dozen players, the Concert Artists ensemble produced a lean, transparent sound close to what the composer originally intended (the ballet was scored for only 13 instruments, but later arranged for full orchestra). Polochick used that thinner tone palette to bring out subtle shadings in the piece, catching the tinge of melancholy and nostalgia in the opening and closing sections with particular sensitivity. The folk dance episodes had an engaging kick. Above all, the conductor ensured that the score unfolded as one seamless, evocative thought.
The performance was full of character and, a couple of slightly ragged notes aside, highly polished. The flute and clarinet soloists offered beautifully molded phrasing.
The women of the Concert Artists chorus were heard just before "Appalachian Spring," singing the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," which provides the climactic musical material of the ballet. They also started off a group of Copland's "Old American Songs," which closed the program, intoning "The Little Horses" sweetly, but not always smoothly. In the remaining songs, the full chorus did some colorful, poised, well-blended singing, especially in "Zion's Walls" and "At the River," with generally solid support from the orchestra.
The concert was titled "From Folk to Classical," a theme that made perfect sense with the Copland material; his penchant for adapting American folk music or imitating it superbly helps explain his popularity. The theme was less obvious in the first half of the program, devoted to works by Hispanic composers.
James Hontz, who is on the faculty of several regional colleges and is working on a doctorate at Peabody, was the expressive, mostly fleet-fingered soloist in "Fantasia para un gentilhombre" by another late composer, Spain's Joaquin Rodrigo. One of Rodrigo's most popular works, this evocation of Spanish baroque music has an underlying elegance that exploits the guitar's distinctive coloring brilliantly. Hontz was especially persuasive outlining the stately, eloquent melodic curves of the second movement. Polochick provided the guitarist with attentive support from the podium; the orchestra made a generally cohesive, vibrant sound.
There was a welcome chance to hear a much less familiar side of Rodrigo -- an understated, a cappella choral setting of "Ave Maria." It was effectively contrasted with an "Ave Maria" from about four centuries earlier by Tomas Luis de Victoria. These and other interesting, unaccompanied Spanish works were sung with admirable finesse and feeling by the chorus.