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Aaron Copland: The City
20 Apr 2010

Aaron Copland's score for The City

This disc neatly captures a central dichotomy of the career of composer Aaron Copland.

Aaron Copland: The City

Francis Guinan, narrator. Post-Classical Ensemble. Angel Gil-Ordóñez, conductor.

Naxos 2.110231 [DVD]

$17.99  Click to buy

Raised in New York City, Copland gained his greatest successes with scores that extol a rural, bucolic vision of American life. Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid — compositions that present an idealized, perhaps even sentimentalized portrayal of a boisterous, green America, while containing enough musical sophistication and imagination to remain perpetually fresh. One of the composer’s early forays into film composition came when he was asked to score a 45 minute documentary called The City, which is in effect an advertisement for Lewis Mumford’s planned community, Greenbelt. Before the filmmakers (Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke) turn their film over to a rapturous hymn to Greenbelt, they set the stage by contrasting the virtues of country living with the veritable hell of city life, circa 1939 — the very city life that produced Aaron Copland.

The booklet essay by Joseph Horowitz calls this disc a sequel to the Naxos DVD containing The River and The Plow that Broke the Plains, two short documentaries for which Virgil Thomson composed the scores. As that disc did, this one contains a fresh, high-quality audio performance of the score by Angel Gil-Ordóñez conducting the Post-Classical Ensemble, along with the original performance (in clear but flat mono) by a studio orchestra. Copland composed episodes, not just the typical brief cues of most film soundtracks, with the film’s portentous narrative interspersed. It’s high-quality film music — entertaining and yet not overwhelming the film’s objective. A sequence of 1939 traffic jams gets a strangely jaunty theme, as if city boy Copland found something fun in the sight of these city dwellers desperate to escape on a weekend to some beach or picnic refuge. In fact, the most interesting music underlies all the city sequences, which the filmmakers work anxiously to make as repulsive as possible. The soft core religiosity of the Greenbelt section may make some listeners sleepy.

Inevitably The City brings to mind the film Koyaaniqatsi, only with better music (sorry, Philip Glass fans). The City also claims that modern city life dehumanizes us, while the “old ways,” recreated in Greenbelt, will restore human life to a paradise lost. The narration ranges from the didactic to preachy, with dips into the bizarre: “A little gossip or a friendly hand is good for the complexion.” A bonus feature has interviews with adults who grew up in Greenbelt as children, and they speak honestly about both the beauty of the experience and the reasons why Greenbelt never became more than an experiment. A sleepy but insightful interview, the other bonus feature, also offers pointed commentary on Greenbelt’s ultimate failure to truly be a workable alternative to the urban/suburban sprawl just getting underway in 1939.

A fascinating disc, and highly recommended.

Chris Mullins

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