Copland from the Heartland

By Lawrence A. Johnson

51wGo0IeubL._SX355_Copland: The Tender Land Suite; Piano Concerto; Old American Songs, Sets 1 and 2.
Benjamin Pasternack, pianist
St. Charles Singers
Robert Hanson/Elgin Symphony Orchestra

The Naxos label’s invaluable American Classics series has excavated a wealth of intriguing, undersung homegrown repertoire, and an added bonus has been the exposure it has afforded many superb regional American orchestras. James Judd and the Florida Philharmonic recorded an admirable Bernstein disc before the ensemble’s demise, and orchestras in Buffalo, Nashville, and even Fort Smith, Arkansas, have made their presence felt far outside their own concert halls.

This new Copland release adds the Elgin Symphony Orchestra to the American Classics roster. Elgin is located in the Kane County suburbs far northwest of Chicago, and the city’s 58-year-old orchestra is a source of deserving pride for its 100,000-plus residents. Conductor Robert Hanson has been associated with the Elgin Symphony for 34 years—the past 23 as music director—and it is clear from the opening bars of the Tender Land suite that Hanson has built the Elgin Symphony into a very impressive ensemble.

The conductor has a sure feel for Copland’s music, with its combination of naive sentiment, pastoral gentleness, and sharp rhythmic cut. Hanson often draws the music out spaciously, conveying the vein of deep sadness in Copland’s long lyrical lines. While somewhat light in corporate sonority, the orchestra sections are polished and consistent, with the Elgin trumpets notably brilliant. This warmly molded Tender Land suite is one of the most beautiful Copland recordings of recent years.

The other performances are worthy if not quite on the same level. Benjamin Pasternack released a disc of Copland piano music in the American Classics series a few years back, yet in the jazzy Piano Concerto his playing is stiff and rather heavy, with Hanson and the orchestra having more fun and showing greater swing in the finale’s syncopations. Pasternack is no match for Garrick Ohlsson with Michael Tilson Thomas (RCA), let alone the composer with Leonard Bernstein (Sony).

The great William Warfield made life uncomfortable for all that followed him in Copland’s engaging Old American Songs. These choral arrangements, mostly by Irving Fine, add some tart vocal counterpoint, keeping a soloist in three of the settings, though baritone Nathanial Stampley is a workmanlike presence. The songs make a better showcase for the St. Charles Singers who make up in unjaded enthusiasm and down-home honesty what they sometimes lack in polish and gleam. The devotional settings tend to work best, as with Long Time Ago and At the River, though the St. Charles Singers display nimble articulation in Ching-a-ring Chaw.

But it is the notable recording debut of the Elgin Symphony under Robert Hanson and that affecting Tender Land suite that make this disc worth picking up. Let’s hope this inspired Midwestern partnership will be represented in future Naxos releases.

Posted in CD/DVD

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Fri Jul 11, 2008
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