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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the November 15, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
At 100, Copland Resonates
Aaron Copland’s best-known music evokes the American
West or New England and embodies the freshness and enterprising spirit
of America. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth
in Brooklyn on November 14, 1900, Copland’s works — variously
written for ballet, piano, movies, chamber ensembles, and orchestra
— are being programmed widely on both sides of the Atlantic. National
Public Radio (NPR) has declared November 11 to 18 "Copland Week"
and offers a live broadcast of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s
celebratory Copland centennial concert that takes place on Saturday,
November 18, at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
This NJSO program is repeated at New Brunswick’s State Theater on
Sunday, November 19, at 3 p.m. Music director Zdenek Macal conducts
the Suite from "Appalachian Spring," "A Lincoln Portrait,"
and the Symphony No. 3, from which a two-minute excerpt is often played
independently, widely known as "Fanfare for the Common Man."
Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, acts as narrator for the
In Princeton the Unitarian Universalist Congregation presents a Copland
100th Birthday Concert Saturday, November 18. The church on Cherry
Hill Road marked the Copland centenary earlier, on November 12, in
two services consisting of Copland’s music, and in a continuing exhibit
of photographs, taken near the end of Copland’s active career, by
Marianne Barcellona. Performers for the November 18 concert include
soprano Martha Elliot, flutist Katherine McClure, clarinetist Jerry
Rife, and pianists Dick Swain and Tim Brown. Swain, assistant music
director at the church, is the producer of the program.
As pre-intermission fare, the Saturday night program presents Copland
works for one and two pianos that survey his output from 1921 to 1972.
Swain characterizes the 1972 "Night Thoughts," commissioned
by Van Cliburn, as "a surprise to those who think they know Copland"
because of its dissonance and percussive effects. For both the November
18 performance and the church services Swain created two-piano arrangements
from the readily-available solo piano versions of Copland’s music.
"The counterpoint is easier to play on two pianos," he says.
Swain finds collaborating with pianist Tim Brown as a duo-piano team
gratifying. "Tim’s a professional piano player," Swain says.
"He’s more of a perfectionist than I am. He makes me practice.
We never fight."
After intermission, the program takes the form of a musicale at the
Victorian home of Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts. In costume,
Elliot sings Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and the
instrumentalists play Copland’s music.
"Copland is so popular and so famous because he created a musical
language in the 1930s that was an incredible synthesis of a variety
of American things," Swain says during a conversation in his Princeton
home. "Copland almost literally struck a chord. Beginning with
`Billy the Kid’ his music was full of open fourths and fifths that
make everybody say, `That’s wide open spaces in America.’ In the hymn
from the `Our Town’ film score he uses the key of C major; that’s
simplicity and accessibility. He wrote for ballet; you’ve got to dance
to that. He used folk songs — cowboy songs in `Billy the Kid’
and `Rodeo.’ He wanted to evoke Shaker roots, and western roots and
cowboy roots and great open spaces roots. He had a nurturing, nostalgic,
caressing style. And he also had a lay-down-the-law style that was
raw and violent. I like both."
Swain, 58, was born in Milwaukee and raised in Shorewood, a Milwaukee
suburb, the younger by five years of two brothers. His brother is
now a lawyer in Appleton, Wisconsin. Their father worked in a bank
and acted in community theater. Swain remembers cueing him in "Death
of a Salesman" when he was eight, and, because his father called
on him to help him with theatrical roles, Swain came to know well
and at an early age the plays "Harvey," "Life With Father,"
"Detective Story," "Death of a Salesman," and others.
"My mother was a musician," he says. "She was the piano
lady. She could play by ear in any key. She couldn’t understand how
I could not play by ear. She would say, `But, dear, you just put your
fingers on the keys and play what you want to hear.’ I’m a good sight
reader. That’s a thing she couldn’t do."
Swain started piano at three with informal lessons from his mother
and an aunt. His formal lessons began at age six. In high school he
began studying cello; he stopped 10 years later because he never had
a satisfactory instrument. Copland’s music has been part of his life
since he was an adolescent. "When I was 14 or 15," he says,
"I got a copy of Leonard Bernstein’s transcription of Copland’s
`El Salon Mexico.’ I remember my mother coming in from the kitchen
and saying `What is this?’ It was more dissonances than she had ever
heard before, but I loved it."
After majoring in art history at Oberlin and graduate
work at New York University and the University of Michigan, he emerged
with a Ph.D. in the field of renaissance and baroque garden history.
The title of his dissertation was "Le Jardin de Plaisir in Tudor
and Stuart England." All the research for the thesis was done
in London and Paris.
Swain lived in London for more than two years in the early 1970s,
and gradually became eager to return to the United States: inadequate
plumbing and heating, as well as an impatience with English manners,
came to irritate him. "The English consider this charm. It’s not,"
he says. "I never realized how much of an American I was,"
Swain married another art historian, Marjorie Harth, who is now director
of the galleries at California’s Claremont Colleges. The couple, now
divorced, has a son, Alex, 28, whose impatience with formal education
is at least at the same level with Swain’s impatience with London.
Alex designs computer networks for a firm in Reston, Virginia. "It
amuses both of us," says Swain. "I and my ex-wife have doctorates
in art history. He’s an auto-didact and he makes more than the two
of us together."
Swain works at a variety of things, with both intensity and abandon.
His house reflects these qualities. The white walls, relatively bare,
the curtainless windows, and the wood floors suggest that Swain spends
no time on what he considers unessential. A small selection of sculptures
and pictures enliven the space; Swain likes to live with what he cares
about. A large well-filled calendar, mounted accessibly on a music
stand, attests to Swain’s high level of activity. The furniture is
sparse, but comfortable. The clutter is meaningful; costumes ready
for rehearsal hang on a rack at the front door; a paper bag with props
from a previous production of "Alice in Wonderland" sit on
the kitchen floor. An intermittent peep punctuates our conversation;
if it were my house, I would check the battery on the smoke alarm.
The chief institutional vehicle for Swain’s activities is the Poquelin
Players, of which he is the founder. The troupe had its start with
what Swain calls one of the first intact performance in 300 years
of a Moliere play written for an elaborate 1661 garden party of Louis
XIV. Swain translated the Moliere play, "Les Facheux," for
a show at the Unitarian Church. "We filled the entire church with
trees, sculptures, fountains, and candelabra," Swain says. "The
costumes came from McCarter. There was a ballet company and an orchestra."
After that people asked for more, and Swain obliged.
"I thought of Moliere as the Chef du Troupe," Swain says.
"He wrote plays and was the head actor. I wanted to follow a similar
role and be the producer, director, and sometimes an actor. We got
the name from Moliere’s original name, Jean Baptiste Poquelin."
Swain translated three additional Moliere plays, some of which were
performed in New York under the label "O Rare Moliere."
After starting with Moliere, Swain has steered Poquelin Players into
various other productions: Thornton Wilder’s "The Wreck on the
5:25" and "Our Town," Marc Blitztein’s "Cradle Will
Rock," celebrations of George Gershwin (U.S. 1, September 23,
1998), Kurt Weill, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Basically, if Swain leads
the way, by definition it’s a Poquelin Players vehicle. "My productions
are devoted to people I care about." Swain says. "It’s an
extension of me." For his next production he is considering Leonard
Bernstein or William Bolcom.
"I’m still growing up," says Swain. "Most of my friends
have a childlike quality. Poquelin Players is make believe. It has
a what-the-hell quality. If you were grown up you wouldn’t raise your
hand to do these things." Still, Swain feels an affinity for Copland,
whom he considers totally adult.
"Copland," Swain declares, "was an incredible grownup.
He wasn’t flamboyant. He came to terms with his sexuality and his
Jewishness. He had a tremendous influence on American music. He promoted
his own music, and everybody else’s." The size of his place in
music lovers’ hearts is reflected by the many celebrations marking
his 100th birthday.
— Elaine Strauss
Orchestra , State Theater, New Brunswick, 800-ALLEGRO. Copland’s
100th birthday is celebrated with his best-loved works including "Lincoln
Portrait," Symphony No. 3, and "Appalachian Spring." Zdenek
Macal conducts. $15 to $61. Sunday, November 19, 3 p.m.
50 Cherry Hill Road, 609-924-1604. Americana classics performed by
Dick Swain, Tim Brown, Jerry Rife, Melissa Bohl, Kathy McClure. $12.
Saturday, November 18, 8 p.m.
Pianist and producer Dick Swain is professor of art history at Rider
and founder of the Poquelin Players,
The Economist’s scoresheet of October 21 lists concerts in Maryland,
Houston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and London.
McClure: as well as at the Lawrenceville School and maintains a private
studio in Princeton where she lives with her husband Robert Brown.
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