Measure by Measure

An American in Berlin

Aaron Copland’s 1970 visit to Germany

By Sudip Bose | May 3, 2018
Aaron Copland conducting, Berlin, 1970 (Victor Kraft/Library of Congress)
Aaron Copland conducting, Berlin, 1970 (Victor Kraft/Library of Congress)

Throughout the long and storied history of the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra’s core repertoire has consisted, not surprisingly, of German and Austrian fare. From what I can tell, American music has never figured prominently. To be sure, an American piece would have been a rarity during the 33-year tenure of Herbert von Karajan. Yet this has continued to be the case even in recent years, a time when Simon Rattle has expanded the orchestra’s repertoire in a contemporary and more international direction. Recently, while perusing the archives of the Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, I counted 66 performances of a Beethoven work during the past decade and 65 of Brahms, but just eight of Leonard Bernstein, five of John Adams, three of Charles Ives, three of Elliott Carter, one of Samuel Barber—and precisely none of the composer thought to be the most representative American in terms of temperament and idiom, that being Aaron Copland.

Given this state of affairs, one concert held in September 1970 now seems like a historical curiosity, if not an outright anomaly. That’s when the venerable Copland, just shy of his 70th birthday, led the Berlin Philharmonic in a concert that was broadcast on German radio but that has only now been released on a commercial recording.

Typically, Copland’s programs were all-American affairs, and this one was no different. That early autumn day, he led performances of his own Symphony No. 3, Carter’s Holiday Overture, and the Decoration Day movement from Ives’s Holiday Symphony, the latter especially sensitive and compelling, mesmeric in the funereal passages, joyously chaotic in the middle sections, and magically tranquil by work’s end. Yet perhaps the most interesting item on the program for me was the collaboration with Karl Leister, the Philharmonic’s long-time principal clarinetist, in Copland’s masterly Clarinet Concerto. Leister, a prominent soloist as well as orchestral player, had never met Copland, but they shared a warm artistic rapport from the start, their relationship marked by mutual respect. “I had the impression,” Leister has said, “that I had interpreted the concerto very much in its composer’s spirit. In any case, he was very pleased.”

Benny Goodman commissioned Copland to write the Clarinet Concerto, the composer beginning work on it in 1947 while living in Rio de Janeiro, teaching and conducting, and absorbing the rhythms and popular melodies all around him. In late 1948, he finally finished the piece. It’s scored somewhat unusually—for strings, harp, and piano in addition to the solo clarinet—and is divided into two movements that are linked by a whimsical and florid cadenza. The principal melody of the first movement, played by the clarinet after a few hushed bars of harp and strings, is one of the loveliest, most serene things that Copland (or anyone, for that matter) ever wrote. This music is also somewhat elusive: take the wonderful moment, some 15 measures in, when the clarinet, spinning out a long and plangent line, lands on a low E flat that changes the color, the mood, the sentiment of everything that’s come before. Indeed, the entire first movement, although intensely moving and lyrical, has a palpable undercurrent of unease. The cadenza comes after six minutes or so, the lines tentative at first, but soon the soloist must bring to bear upon the work a supreme technical ability. This then leads to the jaunty, jazz-inflected finale—an angular and rhythmic dance, with plenty of spiky dissonances and nods to the Brazilian popular music that Copland had been imbibing in Rio. Because there are no percussion instruments, Copland demands certain percussive effects from the harp; elsewhere, the double bassists must pull and snap at their strings—the so-called slap style, a cousin of a mode of pizzicato that Bela Bartók called for in his string writing.

Goodman gave the concerto’s premiere in 1950 with Fritz Reiner and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and the work quickly became a repertory staple, though this was largely true for American clarinetists. Although Leister was drawn to the piece, teaching it to his students, using the virtuosic cadenza to test their technique, he didn’t perform it until earlier that year in 1970. During rehearsals in September, Leister often asked Copland for advice in shaping the interpretation. From the composer’s perspective, however, the German clarinetist was managing just fine on his own. Part of the appeal of the recording is hearing how Leister, an artist whom I’ve always associated with Mozart, Brahms, and Carl Maria von Weber, makes the jazz idiom his own—how he manages to convey the impression of freedom and improvisation (particularly in the cadenza) even though everything is notated in the score. For me, the benchmark recordings of the piece are by Richard Stoltzman (with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting) and Goodman (with Copland leading the Columbia Symphony Orchestra), yet Leister’s interpretation is excellent, too, and different in disposition from those others.

If Stoltzman plays that unforgettable opening melody as if in the depths of some summer reverie, the notes as ethereal as clouds, Leister is more earthbound, but more songlike, too—there’s both innocence and nostalgia in the round, focused, at times dark-hued tone. (When it comes to this melody, there is room for divergence of opinion. I remember watching an episode of the show Concerto! in which Stoltzman and the host, Dudley Moore, were discussing this wondrous music. Moore felt bliss, while Stoltzman sensed utter loneliness.) When I listen to Leister, this leisurely opening movement sounds almost like the beginning of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony; it feels like a poignant farewell, a sensation that I’d never experienced before when listening to this piece. Throughout the movement, the ensemble work is outstanding, with Copland achieving a great balance and blend—the entire orchestra moving forward together as if it were a chamber ensemble. The Berlin strings play with such understanding of this music, skillfully handling the spacious “American” theme that comes about three minutes into the piece. In the cadenza, Leister displays his amazing breath control, impeccably negotiating those tortuous runs. And if the finale doesn’t quite take flight the way it does in Stoltzman’s recording, the reading is appropriately rousing and idiomatic.

So what did the Berliners in the audience, most of whom, I imagine, would have been unfamiliar with this work, make of the performance? By the sound of the roar following immediately upon the final note—that exhilarating clarinet glissando that caps off the C major coda—they loved it.

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