- Aaron Copland: Fanfare for America by Andreas Skipis
This 2001 production by Hessischer Rund funk for Arthaus Musik presents an interesting overview of the career of Aaron Copland. By no means an exhaustive account, it gives what is a generally good cross section of his life and works, with many archival television clips and photographs, as well as a present-day tour through the Brooklyn of his early years. With a running time of only an hour, this film leaps from peak to peak, concentrating on the years from Copland’s study in Paris in the 1920’s to his serial pieces Twelve Poems of Emily Dickenson (1951) and Connotations, commissioned for the opening of Lincoln Center in 1962.
The narration of the film is in German, although the menu presents an option of subtitles in English as well as several other languages, but the interviews (with conductor Hugh Wolff, biographer Howard Pollack and Copland himself) are in [End Page 166] English. By limiting the talking heads, director Andreas Skipis actually achieves more unity and structural coherence than might be expected from such a short film. Copland is presented in interviews done towards the end of his professional life (presumably in the 1970’s and early 80’s, although information for this is not given) and is compelling in his discussion of his music and life - especially his Zen-like acceptance of the difficulties he encountered in the McCarthy era congressional hearings. Wolff is lucid and engaging in his discussions of the music he conducts, although the sometimes bizarre film style gets in the way. Initially, I thought I was watching some very modestly gifted actors imitating symphonic musicians playing Copland’s music, but they are indeed Wolff leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (shortly to change its name to Hessischer Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester). Why film-makers and television directors feel these community theater histrionics make Classical music more accessible is a question for future generations. Once one gets by, for example, the oddity of the rapidly appearing and disappearing soloists in Music for the Theater (1925) in front of a single music stand in an all-white room, one can appreciate the beautiful performance.
A composer and pianist in his own right, Howard Pollack is responsible for the definitive biography of Copland (Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, University of Illinois Press, 1999) and here provides insights that go well beyond the merely biographical. The shortcomings of his contributions are that he is interviewed on the New York subway (apparently during rush hour, with all the attendant noise) and walking down a busy street - two more strange filmic conceits. Pollack’s musical analysis (given on a large scale in reference to Copland’s entire career) is extremely insightful and present Copland’s integrated ideas of music, politics and life in general.
Musically, the film is focused on the performances by Wolff and the Frankfurt Symphony, but the DVD case includes pictures of live performances with Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein and Martha Graham - none of which lasts more than a minute or two or can stand on its own as a musical statement. In general, the musical interludes are well spaced and present a good chronological overview of Copland’s work, with the single exception of his Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra (1948) with Goodman, which is presented as a development of his interest in the Jazz of the 1920’s (which inspired his Music for the Theater). The work by Wolff and the orchestra are fortunately presented in if not complete form, then at least long excerpts. Among these selections, the most outstanding is the portion of the orchestral version of Twelve Poems of Emily Dickenson which feature soprano Stella Doufexis.
While the brevity of this film can be viewed as both positive and negative, its treatment of the career of Aaron Copland is an excellent introduction to his works and philosophy. Fortunately, the theatrics of the presentation do not get in the way of the essential delivery of...