Bringing `The City' back to life

The Post-Classical Ensemble will perform Copland's score alongside the 1939 World's Fair film

October 11, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

The iconic 1939 World's Fair, the last hopeful celebration before war would change everything, was a showcase for any number of forward-looking products, ideas and dreams - "the world of tomorrow."

Among the many attractions at the event was a documentary called The City. Made expressly for the fair, it addressed a potent issue of the day - how excessive, unregulated urbanization limited the quality of life.

Making the movie all the more effective was its distinctly American music, composed by a man who was then only just beginning to enter the public consciousness. His name was Aaron Copland.

This week at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, The City will get a rare screening. Rarer still, it will be experienced with a live performance of Copland's score, played by the excellent Post-Classical Ensemble.

That's still not all. After the presentation, the audience will get to step, you might say, directly into the film itself.

The movie's last sequence, promoting a new kind of model city built from scratch, includes footage of one such place - Greenbelt, which this year celebrates the 70th anniversary of its creation under the guidance of the Resettlement Administration during the era of the New Deal.

After the screening of The City, there will be a field trip by bus to Greenbelt for a panel discussion and dessert reception.

Although The City conveys a strong (some would argue socialistic) point of view about improving American life, Copland thought it struck just the right chord.

"The film avoided two major pitfalls of documentaries," the composer wrote, "preachiness and symbolism, and the result was a human intimacy that appealed to all kinds of audiences."

The documentary, and the good reviews for its music, gave Copland entry to Hollywood, where he lived an interesting chapter of his career. He wrote several notable movie scores, including The Heiress, which won him the 1949 Academy Award.

"When he was in Hollywood, Copland really had a subservient role," says Post-Classical Ensemble artistic director Joseph Horowitz. "In The City, he had principal creative input. The music was a crucial and organic component. It was not subordinate."

Horowitz considers this to be Copland's finest film score. "But this music doesn't stand alone," he says. "It has to be heard in the context of the film."

The documentary focuses first on an idyllic New England farming town, then a polluted factory town ("Smoke makes prosperity, no matter if you choke on it," says the narrator).

A big, congested, violence-prone metropolis is next (Copland "got to be ironic for the traffic jam scene, writing a jaunty dance," Horowitz says).

Finally, the film shows a new model city being created in the country, a manageable place with green spaces and health care for all.

"It's a forgotten film," Horowitz says, "but we're making a DVD that will put it back in circulation." (Post-Classical recently performed the same service for two other 1930s documentaries, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, both with scores by Virgil Thomson.)

Giving The City extra attraction this week is its local hook.

"When we pitched it to Ruth [Waalkes, director of artistic initiatives] at Clarice Smith, we had no idea that the final sequence had been filmed in Greenbelt," says Horowitz. "It's a complete coincidence, if you can believe it."

Waalkes saw value in that coincidence.

"It gave us not just a great music and film project, but a great potential for community connection," she says.

"It is such an opportunity, especially for people who don't know Greenbelt, to see the film and then get to be in the actual environment. We're always looking for different ways to engage people and extend the experience for the audience."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

"The City" will be presented at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Route 193 and Stadium Drive, College Park. Tickets are $35, $7 for students. Call 301-405-2787 or go to claricesmithcenter.umd.edu. To make reservations for the bus to Greenbelt and the reception, contact Lynnie Raybuck at lraybuck@umd.edu or 301-405-5974.

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