Copland's great 'City' score is timely arrival on D.C. group's new DVD

CLEF NOTES

January 22, 2009|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Two years ago, as if presciently planned, the Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble took a fresh look at a 1939 documentary called The City that boasts a vivid score by Aaron Copland. The film, made by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke and scripted by urban planner Lewis Mumford, examines the most unattractive aspects of modern metropolitan life and promotes an environmentally friendly, government-spearheaded alternative.

This Great Depression-era product has now re-emerged on DVD by Naxos, with Post-Classical's freshly recorded soundtrack, just as the country is in the grip of the Great Recession and the air is full of talk about government projects, large-scale and green. Seems like great timing to me.

Movie and history buffs will want to check out The City, which looks and sounds great on the DVD - and is sure to make a strong impression when shown at the Charles Theatre this weekend, part of the Cinema Sundays series there. And music buffs will not want to miss the chance to hear what Post-Classical's artistic director, Joseph Horowitz, asserts is "arguably Copland's highest achievement as a film score."

That score, here conducted by the ensemble's music director, Angel Gil-Ordonez, with his usual care and expressiveness, comes through as vibrantly as the camerawork. This is particularly true in the brilliant urban scenes. It sounds as if Copland had more fun composing music for those city shots; that's where the music really jumps out at you.

Those kinetic, frenetic scenes are actually more fun than the idyllic views of Greenbelt, the first New Deal towns created with federal money in the '30s along the lines espoused by Mumford to provide a more humanizing and community-conscious experience for the citizenry. (One jarring note, perhaps more so this week than any other time, is that the utopian Greenbelt depicted in the film appears to be an all-white enclave.)

The newly recorded narration is delivered with flair by Francis Guinan, a veteran of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble.

DVD extras include the complete 43-minute film with its original soundtrack and narrator, and a short film from 2000 about the development of Greenbelt. Among those interviewed in the latter is an original 1930s resident seen as a boy in The City.

The presentation of The City at the Charles will be paired with another documentary from that era, The Plow That Broke the Plains, which has a memorable film score by Virgil Thomson, also freshly recorded by the Post-Classical Ensemble (and released on a Naxos DVD in 2007 with The River). Horowitz and Gil-Ordonez will join Cinema Sundays host Jonathan Palevsky to discuss the films and take questions after the screenings. The action begins at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St. Admission is $15. Call 410-727-3456 or go to cinemasundays.com.

I wish the Post-Classical Ensemble could develop a regular presence in Baltimore. Its programming in the Washington area, like last season's terrific revival of an obscure 19th-century operetta and, later this month, the pairing of a concert with a re-enactment of Copland's 1953 testimony before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's infamous communist-hunting committee, is invariably original and thought-provoking.

Shriver, BSO concerts

Piano competitions have been generally devalued over the years (the bad rap is that only bland players can win by alienating the fewest judges), so the Gilmore Artist Award is a big deal. It's bestowed every four years, without any competitive activity; judges travel incognito to hear unsuspecting pianists in action. The most recent winner, Ingrid Fliter (2006), made her Baltimore debut last Sunday for the Shriver Hall Concert Series before an enthusiastic audience.

I wasn't totally blown away by the Argentine-born Fliter, although there certainly was much to savor. She began with a crisp and nimble account of Bach's Italian Concerto that needed just a little more personality. A group of Chopin pieces, a mazurka and six waltzes, revealed the pianist's admirable sense of rhythmic nuance, but the tonal coloring Fliter produced proved limited (some technical slips caused momentary distraction).

She hit a peak, however, in Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, summoning considerable virtuosity and shading. And I loved the way she organized the individual pieces. Pianists usually incorporate five posthumously discovered variations somewhere into the score, altogether. Fliter mixed them up and, most daringly, played two of the moodiest ones after the traditional bravura finale. That subtle finishing touch gave the half-hour piece an extra layer of depth.

On paper, last week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program looked rather dull but proved to be anything but. French conductor Stephane Deneve, in his local debut, heated up Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with a startling account of Ravel's La Valse. From the first rapt, barely audible, barely moving notes, Deneve had my attention.

The wild-haired conductor went on to push, pull, tweak, finesse and almost pummel the work to create a deliciously eventful interpretation. I wasn't convinced by all of the little tempo fluctuations and phrase-bending, but the music exuded freshness and interest from that misty opening to the dizzying coda. The BSO hung on more or less tightly through it all.

Deneve gave Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances an equally compelling treatment that combined effective proportions of tautness and elasticity. The generally firm orchestra poured on the tonal and expressive warmth.

In between came Cesar Franck's compact, modest nonconcerto, Symphonic Variations. There is a lot of gold in this work, and the longhaired, zero-body-fat, chicly attired Frank Braley, a French pianist making his BSO debut, knew how to extract the keyboard portion of it, with crystalline articulation and refined, imaginative phrasing. Deneve saw to it that the orchestra also fulfilled its role with personality.

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