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Copland and the American Sound (Keeping Score series): DVD Review

By John Sunier
This is the latest in the San Francisco Symphony productions which have also been aired on PBS. With the initial production on Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony plus the two mentioned above, the series now totals four "Revolutions in Music."

It would usually be best to start with the documentary portion of each DVD in the series. These productions lift the presentation above most of the concert music DVDs which simply record a performance by the orchestra in question. Conductor Tilson Thomas goes to Europe and investigates aspects of the story of the particular composer being profiled. In this case it means going to Paris and talking about Nadia Boulanger and her effect upon not only Copland but many other American composers.

The videography is top rate, with sweeping views and trenchant but brief commentary by MTT. Not just music-oriented, the commentary delves into the social and political developments around Copland's capturing of that special American sound in concert music. Talking about the diversity of music in early 20th century America and how the different musical styles were transformed in Copland's unique sound brings in references to the Yiddish theater and closeups of sheet music from productions done by Tilson Thomas' ancestors, the Thomashevskys. Discussion of the quintessential Copland Americana, Appalachian Spring, involves fascinating clips from the original Martha Graham dance film which featured Copland's score. I only wish the documentary portions could have been presented in 5.1-channel surround, not just the concert portions.

The concert video portion is a bit different from the other three in that it involves only a small chamber group for a performance of the complete Appalachian Spring ballet. Various instrumental soloists comment on the music and their parts in it. The players are arranged in a semi-horseshoe around MTT with the piano front and center, replicating the layout of the larger orchestra seen in the other DVDs. The shots often feature super closeups of the players and their instruments.

The images are more striking and involving than most symphonic videos, and the 5.1 surround is a superb accompaniment to the widescreen images. The influence of AIX Records' Mark Waldrep as DVD producer is seen in this series being one of the only ones to offer a choice of both "Stage" and "Audience" mixes - the former puts the listener right on the podium with MTT. I found it more exciting listening than the tenth-row Audience acoustic.

All in all, a wonderful treatment - sonically, visually and intellectually, of an important American composer.

DVD Details:
  • Performers: San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
  • Studio: San Francisco Symphony Production
  • Video: 16:9 widescreen color
  • Subtitles: English on documentary; also German, French, Spanish
  • Audio: DD 5.1 on concert, with "Audience" or "Stage" acoustics; DD Stereo on documentary; PCM Stereo
  • Extras: About Keeping Score, About MTT, About the San Francisco Symphony, Trailers for Beethoven's Eroica & Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Net links
Originally published on Audiophile Audition

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