The American Piano Festival, continuing through tomorrow at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, combines the talents of students, faculty and guest artists to chart the American philosophical, artistic and performance history of what arguably is still this country’s most popular solo instrument.
In an unusual Wednesday evening program in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall, festival organizers and participants offered conjectural musical and historical insights into composer Aaron Copland’s lengthy involvement with communism, attempting to demonstrate how this may have affected his seemingly odd compositional trajectory. With discussions, dramatic readings and musical performances — including a proletarian audience singalong — participants painted a not entirely accurate portrait of a naive American patriot whose career path was drastically altered by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The music was not the usual Copland fare — excerpts from the composer’s popular but bland hyper-American works such as “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring.” Instead, the focus was on the spiky modernist compositions that bookended Mr. Copland’s middle, overtly “progressive” period.
To open the program, student pianists Shyueh-Chao Cheng and Nadio Qing Li performed his “Proclamation” and “Piano Variations” (1930). The latter is a surprisingly bold statement underlining Mr. Copland’s individualistic take on modernism.
The program’s first stanza concluded with a pair of two-piano, four-hand Latin American dances crisply performed by student pianists David Ballina and Jessica Stitt.
The concert’s first half also featured a discussion between the festival’s artistic director, Joseph Horowitz, and faculty member Jennifer DeLapp Birkett, who has specialized in Mr. Copland’s music and politics. She theorizes that the composer veered back into modernism and atonality and abandoned his popular-front tonalism at least in part after being frightened by Mr. McCarthy.
In the program’s second half, faculty members reading from transcripts re-enacted Mr. Copland’s evasive testimony at the McCarthy hearings. The skit’s intention was clear: to illustrate how Aaron Copland, political innocent, had been unjustly persecuted by the great Satan of the left.
The truth is that Mr. Copland, like many in his circle, was an artful dodger, and his obvious non-answers prove it. We know now that he had been deeply involved with communist and popular-front organizations whose first allegiance was to Moscow — something glossed over or trivialized by this presentation.
In a National Review article, historian Ronald Radosh noted that Mr. Copland had “a record of a vast amount of cooperation with communist front groups.” He was a member of the Composers Collective, which, Mr. Radosh points out, was an affiliate of the Communist Party’s Workers’ Music League.
Mr. Copland also was an active member of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. The U.S. Subversive Activities Control Board concluded in 1953 that this organization was a communist front. As Terry Teachout, who writes on culture for the Wall Street Journal, has observed, Mr. Copland “was involved with the Communist Party up to his ears.”
The major event of the program’s second half was Mr. Copland’s 1950 Piano Quartet, performed by University of Maryland music faculty members David Salness (violin), James Stern (viola), Evelyn Elsing (cello) and Bradford Gowen (piano). Executed with brilliance, precision and a dash of humor, this was the musical highlight of the evening, as the ensemble brought to life the composer’s continuing unease with the 12-tone row even as he purported to embrace it.
Concluding the program, guest pianist Anthony de Mare pounded his Steinway grand into submission with athletic performances of musical screeds by leftist contemporary American composer Frederic Rzewski, including his sublimely weird “Piano Piece No. 4,” in which the instrument’s strings seem to morph, under considerable force, into tuned, clanging gongs.
Like the music of any accomplished composer, Aaron Copland’s most notable works have come to outlive the circumstances surrounding their creation. It was bracing to attend a musical program that attempted to contextualize his compositional periods with his evolving political leanings. Nevertheless, it might have been more helpful, more intellectually challenging, had the academic portion of the evening at least acknowledged Mr. Copland’s shadowy role in institutionalizing the insistent Marxist undertone that even today saps the vigor of the American arts scene. What we got instead was another cheap shot at Joe McCarthy’s convenient corpse, a worn stock character in an endlessly looping dialectical drama.
WHAT:The American Piano Festival
WHERE: Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park
WHEN: Today and tomorrow
WEB SITE: www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
Festival schedule Today, March 11
2 p.m.: Joseph Horowitz’s keynote address, Kogod Studio Theatre. Free.
3 p.m.: “Pioneers, Mavericks, and Entertainers,” a 3½-hour music and multimedia event, Gildenhorn Recital Hall. Tickets: $30, $7 for students.
Tomorrow, March 12
3 p.m.: Piano faculty and Left Bank Quartet perform music by New England composers, Gildenhorn Recital Hall. Tickets: $25, $7 for students.