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Nothing happens again…

03/30/2000 -  
Aaron Copland The tender land
Philippa Woodrow (Beth), Catherine Pierard (Mrs Moss), Neil Jenkins (Mr Splinters), Laura Claycomb (Laurie), Roderick Williams (Top), Richard Coxon (Martin), Richard Van Allan (Grandpa), Pamela Helen Stephen (Mrs Jenks), Thomas Guthrie (Mr Jenks), Ameral Gunson (Mrs Splinters) Richard Hickox (conductor)
City of London Sinfonia, Joyful Company of Singers

Aaron Copland's The tender land could be uncharitably summarized as "nothing happens; she leaves home". A gentle slice of American rural life originally written for television in 1951, it is an avatar of "The Waltons": the daughter of a rural family, about to graduate from high school, falls in love with a vagrant who is suspected of being a rapist. He and his buddy, originally hired to work on the family's farm, are cleared of the crime but told to move on anyway. She wants to go with them, they leave without her and she decides to leave anyway.

The tender land is closely related, musically and thematically, to Oklahoma -- down to its heroine being called Laurie -- and to Weill's Down in the valley, originally written for radio. The crisis occurs at a party with an exhilarating near-minimalist dance-song, a hint that the librettist "Horace Everett" was the dancer Erik Johns. It is difficult not to find it slightly derivative, since much of the music is in the Appalachian Spring style that is perhaps too familiar to register from its diluted use in pastoral sounds tracks.

If you listen, though, Copland's score has an understated toughness that might make you think of the developments from Paul Bunyan in Britten's contemporary operas. Martin, the tenor hobo, is not Peter Grimes, exactly -- he is too conventionally romantic and he has a buddy -- but he is an outsider trying to belong in a stifling community that closes ranks (in song). Where Grimes is excluded for real failings (as well as nonconformity) by a conventional English borough, the persecution of Top and Martin has a strong resonance of McCarthyite paranoia, which was directed in particular at intellectuals of European Jewish descent like Copland.

Richard Hickox, the Britten wonk of the moment, managed to bring out some of the toughness in the score in a performance that was always idiomatic, but the London Sinfonia strings were always lush and fluid.

The singers, all from opera backgrounds, found an inoffensive and occasionally effective music-theatre style. Philippa Woodrow, a memorable right-age Flora in the Royal Opera Turn of the screw a couple of years ago, gave a superbly professional performance as Beth, Laurie's young sister. Laura Claycomb, a striking looking but memorably inadequate Fiakermilli at the San Francisco Opera a year or so ago, really could have been in Oklahoma and was fine. Catherine Pierard looked and sounded too operatic, but was often moving as the mother torn by love for her daughter and the wish to protect her.

Richard Van Allan similarly had the aggression as Grandpa, but not the roughness or any real nastiness. Richard Coxon in designer stubble looked about right for Martin, but his singing wasn't quite lyrical or forceful enough. Roderick Williams as his older buddy Top sounded considerably sexier, positively dangerous in his rude song at the party.

The Joyful Company of Singers made a grand party sound.

H.E. Elsom



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