Donald Portnoy remembers preparing to perform with legendary American composer Aaron Copland. Portnoy taught at West Virginia University, and Copland was visiting as composer in residence.
“My son, who was seven or eight at the time, looked up and him and said, ‘Mr. Copland, are you nervous? Don’t be nervous. Everything will be all right,’” Portnoy said.
Now in his 16th season as music director for the Augusta Symphony, Portnoy will revisit his experiences with the dean of American composers along with the Augusta Symphony on Saturday, Nov. 4. The chamber ensemble will perform “The Gift to be Simple — and All That Jazz,” a dual program of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and William Walton’s “Façade: An Entertainment,” with spoken word by Mark Mobley, formerly of National Public Radio.
“Appalachian Spring” is a celebration of the American pioneers of the 1800s and tells the story of a small Pennsylvania community. It captures the ambition of Manifest Destiny, the pride of frontier farms, the hope of the Gold Rush, the joy of discovery, the awe of the changing landscape and the determination of early settlers. And although many people could not name a piece of his even if threatened with a beginning violin student’s practice session, Copland’s music is more familiar to the collective ear than people may realize and is often said to capture the grandeur of the American landscape.
“He’s one of those guys who, even when you’re not hearing Copland, you’re still hearing Copland,” Mobley said.
His most recognizable work, the brassand-percussion “Fanfare for the Common Man,” is used repeatedly for movie soundtracks and by rock bands from Styx to the Rolling Stones. The theme song to television show “The West Wing” is obviously inspired by it. But contrary to popular belief, the symphony will not be playing the “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” music, although that, too, is a Copland piece from the ballet “Rodeo.”
No matter. Copland was accustomed to and amused by misinterpretations of his work, especially because “Appalachian Spring” was originally called “Ballet for Martha,” after the famed dancer Martha Graham, who requested the work. It was Graham who provided the name. Portnoy said that Copland, a down-to-earth-guy, actually would be surprised by the pervasiveness of his music.
“He was a great guy. He really was,” Portnoy said, and recalled the performance of one of Copland’s own piano trios that he and a cellist actually played with Copland. “We had our interpretations and he had his interpretation, and it was nice to put it together.”
Like the title of this, Copland’s most recognizable work, his music achieved a difficult balance between modern music and American folk styles, and between high art and public enjoyment. His work elicits a Kantian cliché: you can argue for Copland, you can argue against Copland, but in American music, you can’t argue without him. The Augusta Symphony clearly stands in favor.
From ubiquity to unfamiliarity, the symphony will move to “Façade.” Led by speaker Mark Mobley, formerly of National Public Radio’s Peabody-Award-winning show “Performance Today,” the symphony tackles a multisensory presentation of words and music.
“It’s something you just don’t hear very often,” Portnoy said. The poet Edith Sitwell, a gifted and talented English eccentric, composed an irreverent and sometimes droll piece still full of vitality. She and her family conceived the piece and approached a then-19-year-old composer William Walton, who crafted a genuinely unique composition.
“There really is nothing else like it,” Mobley said, who has performed the piece since his undergraduate days. “For a kid that age to come up with something so imaginative is pretty ingenious.”
The tongue-twisting text requires a seasoned performer like Mobley to wrangle continuity out of it, for the piece can take on a life of its own.
“There are 21 different little vignettes,” Portnoy said. “They’re just wonderful. Each one has a different feel to it. The reciter has to be very quick with his pronunciation and diction because his voice is like another instrument.”
Sitwell’s poetry emphasizes tone and rhythm, and in doing so grows as near to music as tuneless words can. It is, in a sense, the forerunner of hip-hop or spoken word, and was influenced by the Jazz Age. Mobley called it “early 20th century rap.” Walton composed the original music in only three weeks, and each of the musical performances wraps Sitwell’s angular kaleidoscope in a kind of gauzy softness.
“The text fits perfectly, or maybe the music fits perfectly to the text,” Portnoy said. “Each song is completely different.” At first glance, the emotive “Appalachian Spring” and the unorthodox “Façade” might not have much in common. But both pieces were conceived for small spaces — Copland worked for the Library of Congress’ performance hall and Walton for the Sitwell’s own home — and both have been expanded for larger orchestral arrangements.
The Augusta Symphony performs “The Gift to be Simple — and All That Jazz!” with reciter Mark Mobley on Saturday, Nov. 4, at 7:30 p.m. at the Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center at the Columbia County Library as part of the Columbia County Music Series. Tickets are $20, $7 on concert evenings for full-time students and military personnel with a valid ID. Call 706-826-4705 or visit augustasymphony.org.