Tag Archives: Aaron Copland

Just Classics 2 The Gold Collection

W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Sara Macliver (soprano)

Fiona Campbell (mezzo soprano)

Benjamin Northey (conductor)

476 3341 Just Classics Gold

ABC Classics 476 3341

TPT: 61’58”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

I can’t recall hearing a finer version of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man than on this compact disc. Bass drum and tam tam are used to thrilling effect; it’s a perfect overture to the compilation.

Much of the offering consists of much loved classics that are heard time and again on radio or in live performance – but there is not a hint here of familiarity breeding indifference. On the contrary, there is the most appealing freshness to the playing, even in so hackneyed a piece as the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And in Dvorak’s Furiant No 8, the WASO brass section is very much on its collective toes.

Many of those listening to Respighi’s Bergamasca will recognise it instantly as the theme music for Marian Arnold’s much loved, long running Listeners’ Requests on ABC Classic FM.

Fiona Campbell is in exceptional voice in Mahler’s Ging heut’ Morgen. Producing an immaculate stream of fine mellow vocal tone, Campbell makes magic of this much loved lied. And soprano Sara Macliver is no less persuasive in Song of the Pistachio Harvesters from Ravel’s Five Greek Songs, informed as it is by a most appropriate sense of languor.

Also on disc is Saint Saens’ faux-Oriental Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah; woodwinds are very much on their toes here as in Dance of  the Little Swans from Tchaikowsky’s Swan Lake.

Take a bow, WASO! Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is given first rate treatment with Benjamin Northey presiding over events to frankly thrilling effect as the score’s satanic revelry is suggested to the nth degree. And the striding motif from the Montagues and Capulets episode from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet fairly sizzles with intensity.

The West Australian Symphony orchestra does not frequently feature on ABC Classics label so this recording is particularly welcome. Certainly, recording engineers Karl Akers and Gavin Fernie have ensured the WASO is heard to very best advantage here; recorded sound is uniformly excellent.

Interview with Robert Ward, composer of opera The Crucible




by Neville Cohn





Robert Ward may be 91 years old but his mind is as alert and his wit as sharp as someone a third of his age.  It would have been a unique experience for the WAAPA opera students taking part in Ward’s opera The Crucible to ask one of America’s Grand Old Men of opera about interpretative and technical nuances in the roles they are to sing in a season commencing Friday 10th.


With great patience and good humour, Ward gave his views on this or that nuance to students listening raptly to his words as he spoke from his home in the USA’s North Carolina about his collaboration with that most celebrated of American playwrights Arthur Miller as well as librettist  Bernard Stambler.


“I wrote the opera around the time the movie The Misfits was being filmed and Miller and Marilyn Monroe’s marriage was falling apart,” he recalled.


Marvin pointed out that, unlike the operas of Verdi and Puccini, his setting of The Crucible deliberately avoids set-piece arias that can be sung as stand-alone items in, say, an orchestral concert featuring a vocal soloist as this usually results in audience applause at aria’s conclusion. This, Marvin feels, would interrupt the narrative flow and weaken the emotional impact of the work as a whole. He talked, too, of composers who influenced his development as a musician, among them one of his teachers Aaron Copland as well as musical giants such as Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith.


Marvin has never been to Australia. “Some years ago, my wife and I were planning to visit Australia and New Zealand but my wife suffered a stroke and that effectively brought an end to our overseas travel”, said Ward whose opera won not only the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1962 but also the New York Music Critics Circle Citation. 


Miller’s play, about the Salem, Massachusetts witchcraft trials in the 1690s and the judicial murder of blameless citizens who were found guilty of dabbling in the black arts and hanged en masse, was written in the 1950s as a response to the machinations of Senator McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities which branded many quite innocent people as communists, effectively ruining their reputations and ability to earn a living.


Ward’s setting of The Crucible is much vaunted as an icon of 20th century

American, yet , unlike, say, The Medium or The Telephone by Gian Carlo Menotti,  that other American composer, The Crucible is difficult to find on CD. And although, it has been around for decades, the WAAPA production will be the first ever in Australia. It’s a production which should not be missed by anyone interested in the evolution of American opera or the history of Senator McCarthy’s crusade against often quite innocent people.


Also present at the conference phone call was Justin Bischof, the Canadian-born musician now based in New York. Bischof has the pivotal role of conductor of the opera season. This will be the first time he has conducted Ward’s opera. A musician

who is as versatile as he is gifted, Bischof is unusual  in that he came to conducting via a career as an organist. “I began the organ when I was 14 and by 17, I decided that I really loved it – but I’ve always maintained an active career as pianist because I like the repertoire very much.”


Bischof got off to an early start, beginning piano lessons at the age of three years. “I also played the flute for about seven years and was in the school band when I lived in Toronto. Sadly, I haven’t kept up the flute but I’m about to start lessons on the cello as it is vital for a conductor who is not originally a string player to have a tactile sense of playing a stringed instrument.”


Bischof, a graduate of New York’s Manhattan School of Music, is Director of Music at the Church of St James the Less in New York State. “I’ve had Episcopalian church positions since university days – and as well as that, I’ve been pianist, organist and choral conductor at Westchester Reform Temple for 14 years.” 


Bischof’s opera conducting includes performances of Menotti’s The Telephone and The Medium at the Hawaii Opera Theatre in Honolulu as well as productions of Mozart operas such as The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. He has also made a number of recordings as organist and is well known for his brilliant improvisations at the organ console.


The Crucible opens at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre (WAAPA) on Friday at 7:30pm.

Leith Taylor directs.




Aaron Copland Music for Piano

Raymond Clarke (piano)
Passacaglia; Piano Variations; Piano Sonata; Piano Fantasy

The Divine Art 25016
TTP: 1:16:52

reviewed by Neville Cohn




The other evening, I conducted a snap mini-poll among some friends. What, I asked, were the two works that sprang first to mind on hearing the name Aaron Copland? All of the eight polled named Appalachian Spring as a first choice, and, as second, three chose Fanfare for the Common Man, two named Rodeo and the remaining three opted for El Salon Mexico. But when I asked how many of Copland’s works for solo piano they could name, none of the eight – each an enthusiastic and experienced follower of music – could come up with an answer.

Passacaglia, with its stark and sombre octaves in the left hand, conjures up images of implacable, giant-like strides across a landscape. Here, Clarke, at a superb Steinway piano, hurls massive chunks of sound through the speakers; it’s presented with immense authority, taking all Copland’s contrapuntal ingenuity in his stride.

Copland’s Piano Variations is music that ranges from the tender and lyrical to measures that bristle with brusqueness, music that startles with, for want of better words, its sneering, in-your-face quality. Other variations irresistibly call up images of torment, of a barely contained hysteria. And there are, too, moments which would be an entirely appropriate soundtrack for a movie scene depicting vindictiveness and spite.

Somewhere, Copland has written that for his Variations to succeed in performance, the whole should seem to be greater than the sum of its constituent parts. On the evidence of this recording, Raymond Clarke succeeds in this – and succeeds well. Certainly, this is a performance to which I’ve returned again and again, with each hearing providing fresh insights into a work that ought to be far more frequently heard.

Copland’s Fantasy runs for just over half an hour. Much of it is couched in improvisatory-like terms, music that takes the listener across constantly changing, sometimes startling musical territory. In less authoritative hands, this could well sound meandering, formless and tedious.

Clarke, happily, has a rare gift, an ability to give point and meaning to even the most abstruse and esoteric of writing, and succeeds in conveying a sense of logic, no mean feat in so complex a work. The score is dotted with directions to the pianist: “hurried and tense”, “gradual return to poetic, drifting”, to which Clarke responds with an answering depth of expressiveness. It’s a major achievement.

Clarke, in fact, turns the work into musical gold with magnificent washes of sound, moments of heart-easing tenderness with, elsewhere, tone that has an altogether pleasing needle-sharp, diamond-bright quality. I especially admired Clarke’s exponential skill some twenty minutes into the work where we hear what sounds for all the world like some frenzied carillon and muscularly emphasized note clusters.

This ability to bring cogency and clarity to what in other hands could sound impenetrable, is impressive. This is musical problem-solving at a high level.

Neil Butterworth once described Copland’s Piano Sonata as ‘abstract music of ascetic introversion’. And who, hearing the work, would gainsay him? Although not without its strident moments and lively, syncopated rhythms, it is the musing quietness of much of the writing that lingers longest in the memory. The central vivace is a delight with its puckish, nimble outbursts that are the quintessence of impudence.

Hopefully, Clarke’s accounts of Copland’s works will
gain them the audience they deserve. Certainly, they’ve languished too long in the shadows of Copland’s more frequently heard works.

© 2004 Neville Cohn