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Briefly Noted: Slatkin's Copland ballet cycle

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A. Copland, Complete Ballet Scores, Vol. 3, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, L. Slatkin

(released on March 8, 2019)
Naxos 8.559862 | 62'49-"
Aaron Copland composed music for six ballets, although only three have been widely performed and recorded. Conductor Leonard Slatkin has taken a special interest in this side of Copland's oeuvre. After leaving the National Symphony Orchestra, where his tenure had mixed results, Slatkin went on to an institution-rejuvenating stint with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Among several admirable projects was a complete survey of the Copland ballet scores, all in their comprehensive versions, a series of performances captured on disc for the Naxos label. This third and final installment pairs the well-known Billy the Kid, from 1938, with the first ballet Copland composed, the curious, pleasing Grohg.

The composer's three most popular ballets -- Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, and Billy the Kid -- all share the signature Copland sound, somewhat saccharine Americana influenced by folk music and redolent of a mythologizing view of this country's history. The earlier Grohg, on the other hand, is something altogether different. Copland began it in 1922, at the suggestion of Nadia Boulanger, with whom he was studying in France for much of that decade. A chance encounter with Friedrich Murnau's horror film Nosferatu that year led Copland and his friend, the writer Harold Clurman, to create a scenario about a necromancer for the ballet. A monstrous creature, Grohg falls in love with people who have just died -- an adolescent, an opium addict, a prostitute. He revives their corpses with his magic, only to be rejected by them. The mind boggles at what a choreographer like Alexei Ratmansky could do with this ballet.

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Vol. 1

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Vol. 2
As Copland wrote of the piece's composition, "This ballet became the most ambitious undertaking of my Paris years: I had no choreographer, commission or contact with a major ballet company." It was essentially a massive graduate thesis project, and as such was left unpublished. The music shows Copland soaking up the atmosphere of 1920s Paris, a city that had just heard the premieres of Stravinsky's ground-breaking ballets and Debussy's Jeux. "There was a taste for the bizarre at the time," Copland continued, "and if Grohg sounds morbid and excessive, the music was meant to be fantastic rather than ghastly. Also, the need for gruesome effects gave me an excuse for ‘modern’ rhythms and dissonances. Until Grohg, I had written only short piano pieces using jazz-derived rhythms."

Slatkin's is not the first recording of Grohg, an honor that goes to the Cleveland Orchestra under the late Oliver Knussen. (Knussen also conducted the first recording of another rare Copland ballet, Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, with the London Sinfonietta, offered on the same disc.) Slatkin and the DSO give a technicolor rendition of this unusual score, as well as an elegiac performance of the more familiar Billy the Kid. All three discs are both an affordable way for a collector to acquire all of Copland's ballet scores, as well as a testament to the fine partnership of Slatkin and the DSO, an orchestra that has revived along with its city, now that Slatkin has stepped back to take the position of Music Director Laureate.

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