Darth Vader as Honest Abe

As we’ve been looking forward to the Canton Symphony’s next concert (coming up this Sunday, November 6th), Callum and I’ve been listening to the music on the program and thought we’d share just a few random thoughts about some of it, especially the two Copland pieces:  A Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man.  Tom Wachunas does a great job of discussing these in his program notes for the concert, so we recommend reading those for lots of good background information and interesting facts. Click here to do that now. One of the “tidbits” that really jumped out at us is his mention that Gerhardt Zimmermann conducted the National Symphony on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in 1979 with none other than Aaron Copland himself narrating. Callum thought that was really “cool” (and I did, too).

As the program notes also state, the narration for A Lincoln Portrait has been performed by a “stellar roster of individuals” over the years. To those named (Carl Sandburg, Marian Anderson, Henry Fonda, Walter Cronkite, and Margaret Thatcher), I’ll add a few other notables: Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Norman Schwarzkopf, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, and even James Taylor, among many others. We’re looking forward to hearing the narration at this concert by Christopher Craft, which will no doubt be excellent. But my favorite, at least on a recording, would have to be… well, I’ll let Callum tell you:

The narrator is James Earl Jones, who is in The Sandlot, and the one who does the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars! I really like him, he is really good! He is a great narrator for this piece, and I really like this piece, too. It really expresses the significance of the country and of Lincoln’s speeches and what he meant. I think it’s horrible that Lincoln died by getting shot. He was a great president and I think he deserves a piece written about him. He deserves much more than that, but I’m happy he has a piece written about him.

Think of Jones’* performance in Lincoln Portrait as “Lord Vader as Lincoln” but without the heavy breathing. Well, not exactly — it’s of course much better than that — but you get the idea.  He provides a weight to the words that few others could hope to match, and his delivery is filled with striking nuances.  One in particular is how he handles the famous final words of the Gettysburg Address, “…of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” While most readers put the accent on of, by, and for, Jones gives equal, or even greater, weight to people in all 3 cases… putting the emphasis where it’s due. What’s slightly ironic about Jones reading the words of Lincoln is that his voice could hardly be less like Lincoln’s. According to one contemporary account, Lincoln’s voice was “shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant,” and another described it as “high keyed.” But no matter; regardless of its “inauthenticity,” the Jones performance is well worth hearing.

* (sorry… I know it’s preferred, but I just can’t get myself to write Jones’s)

This recording can also be highly recommended for other reasons: The orchestral backing by the Seattle Symphony and Gerard Schwarz is superb, and the other pieces on the program are in some cases unusual repertoire, but all merit repeated listening.  The other Copland works are An Outdoor Overture, Canticle of Freedom (how often do you hear that one?), and of course the opener is an excellent performance and recording of Fanfare for the Common Man. The pieces completing the disc are by Roy Harris, one of my favorite American composers whose works, in my opinion, deserve more frequent performance; and these 3 are no exception.

On a side note, I wish Jones would record Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World, a stirring setting of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (I’ve enjoyed Schwantner’s music ever since this orchestra performed his haunting Aftertones of Infinity under Zimmermann’s direction many years ago.) Jones has performed it in concert numerous times, but not yet “on record.”  The available recordings are disappointing for different reasons: On one, the narration is over-dramatized, over-the-top; on the other, it’s plodding and bland. The premiere recording, with Willie Stargell narrating, was excellent as far as I can recall, but it’s never been released on anything but vinyl and cassette.

Now about the fanfare… What can be said about it that hasn’t been already? Not much. Callum says “It’s really loud, and my dog got scared.” He also likes the “rock” version by one of his favorite bands, Emerson Lake & Palmer. I do wish there were a decent recording of all 18 fanfares commissioned by Eugene Goossens for the Cincinnati Symphony (see the program notes again). The one available isn’t quite up to the task; to me it sounds under-rehearsed and just plain sloppy. I think it would have been a natural fit for Cincinnati and the late Erich Kunzel to record for Telarc… but I suppose it would’ve had limited appeal. A CD full of noisy concert and event openers may have been a tough sell.

Also, while we’re talking about the fanfare, we want to recommend Copland’s 3rd symphony. If you haven’t heard it (but you like the fanfare), we think you’ll really like the symphony, because it’s largely based on the fanfare. There are a number of good recordings of it out there. Just to name a few: Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony, Eduardo Mata and Dallas, and Leonard Bernstein in a live recording with the NY Philharmonic. You can even listen to the Mata recording for free on Spotify and Rdio, and the Bernstein on MOG. Oh and by the way… the Jones/Seattle/Schwarz recording we’ve talked about so much is also available on Spotify and MOG.

A few other brief comments from Callum about another piece on the program, Interlude No. 1 from the CIVIL warS (yep, that’s how the title is formatted) by Philip Glass:

I have never heard Philip Glass with an orchestra before, so this is different. Usually I hear him playing his organ (or someone else playing his music on the organ and other instruments), and one of my favorite pieces by him is called Japura River, by the group Uakti. I loved it so much, that I used to play it on my CD player on repeat all night long in my room.

(If you’d like to hear Japura River, here it is to listen to on YouTube: http://youtu.be/VNScRm1n8js)

Callum and I are really looking forward to hearing the orchestra play all the pieces on the program, and it’ll be interesting to see the multimedia presentations by James Westwater that’ll accompany some of them, too.  Here are samples of what we’ll see during the Glass: http://westwaterarts.com/bts.html, A Lincoln Portrait: http://westwaterarts.com/tes.html, and the Pachelbel Canon: http://westwaterarts.com/asg.html.  We also really enjoyed the orchestra’s excellent Cameo Concert led by Matthew Brown last season at Lincoln Theatre in Massillon, so we’re really looking forward to seeing him conduct this one as well.  We hope to see you there!

Callum & Dad

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