Copland: Billy the Kid (SACD review)

Also, Rodeo; El Salon Mexico; An Outdoor Overture. Andrew Litton, Colorado Symphony. BIS 2164.

American composer, conductor, writer, teacher, and critic Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was hardly a Westerner. Born in Brooklyn, New York and traveling the world, he nonetheless wrote some of the most-popular "Western" music in the serious, symphonic canon, much of which we find on this album by Maestro Andrew Litton and the Colorado Symphony.

It seems appropriate that an American conductor and an American symphony orchestra from the western United States should play this music, too. Not that it matters, I suppose, but why not play Copland's scores in the very heart of the Old West. More important, Litton provides a good show, giving Copland's quintessential American tunes a rousing welcome.

Things begin, though, with a lesser-known Copland piece, An Outdoor Overture, which Copland wrote in 1938 for the High School of Music and the Art in New York City. The music begins with a familiar Western motif, which we see more fully exploited in the works that follow. And like the other pieces on the program, the overture is highly descriptive and effectively expressive. Maestro Litton and his players provide a full, resonant interpretation.

Then we get to the heart of the program, Billy the Kid (1938), a ballet Copland wrote for the American Ballet Caravan (the predecessor of the New York City Ballet). Ironically, the composer had little interest in what one might call "cowboy music," but arming himself with a book of cowboy tunes, off he went. Moreover, the songs gave Copland the impetus to write the simple, straightforward music he had been seeking. Litton presents the piece in its complete ballet form. From its quiet introduction through its programmatic and more-boisterous sections, Litton leads the music in exemplary fashion. There's nothing too fancy or eccentric about the conducting, nor is it in any way commonplace. He simply fulfills the function of the score, making it come alive, refreshing and enlightening and, above all, entertaining. Incidentally, the "Gun Battle" is always fun, and the quality of the BIS recording enhances the excitement.

Andrew Litton
Next on the agenda is El Salon Mexico, which Copland wrote between 1933 and 1936 after a trip to Mexico in 1932 and visiting a rather spirited nightclub called "El Salon Mexico." The composer filled the relatively short work with an abundance of themes derived from Mexican folk music. Here, we see not only Copland but Litton at their most spirited and colorful. Although Litton doesn't quite match Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic for sheer gusto, Litton does add a sweet, nuanced outlook of his own to the agenda.

The program concludes with the complete, although also fairly brief, Rodeo from 1942. The success of Billy the Kid four years earlier prompted the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to commission Copland to do a follow-up ballet for them, and if anything it became even more successful than the earlier piece. Like Billy the Kid, Rodeo is a rather short ballet, in this case less than half an hour. However, Litton provides the middle section, "Ranch House Party," that Copland himself left out of his own recording (Sony) with the LSO. Although Copland handled the whole affair with a tad more energy, Litton and his orchestra play it with enthusiasm and whip up plenty of exhilarating thrills in the process. Still, it's in the more-relaxed passages that Litton excels, as in the "Corral Nocturne" and "Saturday Night Waltz."

Litton's album makes a most-welcome addition to the catalogue of Copland recordings, combining the elements of Western Americana and symphonic elegance in fine balance.

Producer Robert Suff and engineer Matthias Spitzbarth recorded the music at Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, Colorado in November 2014. They made the recording in hybrid SACD, so one can play a two-channel stereo or multichannel surround SACD layer using an SACD player or a two-channel stereo layer using any regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

Rather than be spread across the speakers in a straight line, the sound appears realistically centered between the speakers, with a lifelike depth of image. Dynamics are strong and wide, the frequency response fairly neutral, and the frequency extremes more than adequate for the job. BIS engineers clearly went after a naturalness of sound for this release, and by and large they achieved their goal.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa