Review: Celluloid Copland
3 / 5 Stars
When one thinks of pure musical "Americana", most likely the name Aaron Copland comes to mind. One of the perennial American composers, his music undoubtedly shaped the way we think of American music - and film scoring. While he only scored 10 films, he was nominated for three Academy Awards and won an Oscar for The Heiress. Many people might think of his "Fanfare for the Common Man" or "Appalachian Spring" concert works, and others might think of Of Mice and Men and Our Town for his film scores. "Celluloid Copland" is a new compilation album that has been released which covers four more Copland projects: From Sorcery to Science, The City, The Cummington Story, and The North Star.
From Sorcery to Science was actually a puppet show at the Hall of Pharmacy at the 1939 World's Fair. While basically an infomercial (as most things were at the fair), Copland's music quickly bounced around different world styles, yet somehow remained American at its core. With a triumphant brass "Opening Fanfare", the show began. "The Chinese Medicine Man" and "African Voodoo" use ethnic percussion and scoring, and feel Chinese and African in style, but the tunes themselves are pure Copland. "Finale: The March of the Americas" is a glorious cue full of proud glory and beaming pride: medicine will help us all!
The City was a short documentary done in 1939. The film begins by showing the differences between an idyllic small New England town and a dirty grimy industrial city, where everyone is miserable ("The Steel Mill", "Sorrow of the City"). The main unifying theme is lyrical and complex; it reminds me of something that John Williams would be writing today. The excitement builds a little bit at "Fire Engines at Lunch Hour", where a whistle is put to good effect, along with a tense orchestra, and plenty of Americana. "End Title: The Children" is another fanfare moment, done in the classic Copland style. It's because of his work on this film that he ended up composing Of Mice and Men, and his sporadic (and somewhat short) Hollywood career began.
A suite from The Cummington Story is presented on this album as well. A tender and emotional piece, the documentary follows war refugees as they begin new lives in a small Massachusetts town. This is a great suite of music, and the arrangement by conductor Jonathan Sheffer did a wonderful job keeping the music flowing.
The final suite on the album is from The North Star. A World War II film actually written during WWII, it depicted the Nazi's savage attack on a Russian village. The ending wasn't very upbeat, so famed lyricist Ira Gershwin was brought in to help lighten the atmosphere to send "a cheery message of hope". Here Copland moved away from Americana, and tackled a more Russian style. "Main Title" is a good overall cue, giving you a taste of things to come. The sad, melancholy orchestra in "Death of the School Boy" lead up to the exciting "Song of the Guerillas". Featuring Gershwin's lyrics, Copland's main fanfare is brought to life with depth and complexity. It's an excellent track, and leads directly into the battle suite, contained in "North Star Battle", "The Children's Return" and "Guerilla's Return". Here Copland shows his flare for action cues, with fast moving strings and brass mixed with percussion hits. Stylically similar to some of Prokofiev's music in Alexander Nevsky, this suite is dramatic and exciting - and pretty different from the rest of the music on the album.
The performances by the Eos Orchestra, under the baton of Jonathan Sheffer are quite good, and the sound quality is excellent. This Telarc release has a running time of just about an hour, and for those out there who have very little exposure to Aaron Copland's music, I would have to strongly urge you pick it up. While it may not compare to some of his more "classic" film scores such as Our Town or The Red Pony, this is a great album to have, and I'm sure anyone who gets it will not be disappointed.
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