Soundtracking a Nation: Composing the USA Royal Festival Hall February 22 2 13. Ives Copland Gershwin Joplin

Last time I was at the Royal Festival Hall it was to see Brian Wilson perform the Smile album. A collection of music that aspired to be a great American composition. Here was a different collection coming from various angles to describe a land, surely too varied to be set out in a tune. It was fun to have the conductor, Marin Alsop, talk about about each piece and play extracts before each full performance, although this wasn’t done for the Gershwin, the piece I was most familiar with.
It could be said the Ives piece is all over the place. The variety in pace and mood might sound to some like the composition of a strange man. This piece was Three Places in New England. The more I learn about Ives I find he was strange but as a very average American pop-rock group claimed, people are. My point is that Ives was normal but strange, an insurance man who wrote music to describe a country so varied maybe it could only be done by someone choosing to be a working stiff. This music works beautifully as a sound description of a country I have read about, seen films, art and spent only three weeks visiting. I will go back to this music. It’s complex, slightly mad, vibrant and wonderful.
Copland appears to want to present a specific side of America. This was Copland’s Piano Concerto. The music is an anthem for the wide open spaces and long journeys. I am in thrall to Joni Mitchell’s Amelia, it tells me about an America of vast blue skies, vapour trails and deserts. Copland does this with the music, no need for words just a music that can fill the spaces it describes.
Maybe its the familiarity of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that left the conductor without the need to talk about the piece. Instead it was straight into that opening of the clarinet signaling the start of a tale. Where Copland is about space Gershwin is about the city. It feels like a night out of romance, music and dance. An evening of promise. There is so much music that evokes the city, from seeing a huge 4×4 , hip hop blaring from open windows, to London punks describing the westway. This is a different aspect of the city and again the music goes beyond simple description and visuals.
If Joplin to you, has only meant ragtime, join the club. The piece presented tonight was the Treemonisha suite and showed a composer comfortable with using those influences in orchestration. It was an interesting piece and I really enjoyed being able to hear, above the sound of the orchestra, the banjo picking out a melody.
The last piece was not mentioned in the programme. The composer, James Price Johnson, is far less well known than the others but his Victory Stride is a surprising and interesting piece of Americana. One to seek out, but then they all are.

Links to some of the music mentioned

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

Joni Mitchell – Amelia

Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England – First Movement

Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England – Second Movement

Charles Ives Three Places in New England Third Movement