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.
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: