The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has just issued its first release on its Fanfare label. “Hallowed Ground,” taken from concerts with the Orchestra’s new music director, Louis Langrée, is comprised of three works: Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” and two pieces commissioned by the Orchestra from composers David Lang and Nico Muhly.
A notable aspect of the recording is that the narrator of the “Lincoln Portrait” is Maya Angelou. During her extraordinary life, she was a dancer, singer, actress, poet, writer, magazine editor, playwright, film director, college professor and civil rights activist. Dr. Angelou died at age 86, months after she appeared with the Orchestra.
The Cincinnati Symphony has a special relationship with the work. André Kostelanetz commissioned the “Lincoln Portrait” and conducted the world premiere by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the conductor wanted works honoring outstanding Americans. Virgil Thomson and Jerome Kern also composed pieces for the occasion. Copland initially planned to supply a composition about Walt Whitman, but when Kern chose Mark Twain as his subject, Copland switched to Lincoln. As with his “Fanfare for the Common Man,” also commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony around the same time as one new piece among others, the Copland work is the only one on the program to make a lasting impression.
Copland suggests Lincoln’s sound world by incorporating two songs from that era: Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” and the folk tune, “Springfield Mountain.” The narrator doesn’t appear until the final third. Copland strung together excerpts from Lincoln’s own writings, including the Gettysburg Address, along with some phrases penned by the composer. The repeated “And this is what he said” enhances the sense of Lincoln as a towering figure, whose words are part of our national fabric.
The orchestral sections have an epic sweep. Copland basically created an indigenous American classical style, which has influenced later generations. Angelou sounds rather frail but fully committed to the text. A well-known civil rights activist who fought against segregation, the words of Lincoln about the evils of slavery obviously had personal meaning for her. The final line from The Gettysburg Address that “This government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth” leads up to an orchestral crescendo and achieves a well-deserved ovation from the audience. (For a more assertive recitation of the text, there is a YouTube video of a 1980 concert celebrating Copland’s 80th birthday with the composer himself as narrator and Leonard Bernstein leading the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.)
David Lang’s orchestral work, “Mountain” is intended as an homage to Copland. The opening chords sound Copland-esque but there is little development. The piece is easy to listen to but not especially compelling.
Nico Muhly’s “Pleasure Ground” is a strong new work, honoring an important American whose contributions to our country, and New York City in particular, are better known than he is. Frederick Law Olmsted is the landscape architect who designed Central Park and Prospect Park. He was also a journalist and, fittingly on a recording with “Lincoln Portrait,” was an abolitionist. Muhly set Olmstead’s writings about gardens in England and America, followed by a harrowing account of the horrors he encountered during the Civil War. The concluding section returns to the subject of gardens. Olmstead describes the constant effort to maintain the parks. He ends with the observation that “if man is not to live by bread alone, what is better worth doing well than the planting of trees?”
The commendable soloist is Nathan Wyett and the text is included in the liner notes. Muhly, born in 1981, whose opera, “Two Boys,” was performed at the Metropolitan Opera last year, continues to be a composer worth following.
“Hallowed Ground” is an auspicious debut for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s new label.