Conductor Offers New View of American Visionary

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Students and Berkeley residents packed Hertz Hall yesterday to hear San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas speak about composer Aaron Copland.

Tilson Thomas had studied under Copland earlier in his career, and in the 90-minute lecture entitled "Aaron Copland: Portrait of a Radical Patriarch," he addressed the composer's uniquely American style.

Copland created the American western style of music, which is epitomized in his "Rodeo" piece. The song was recently used as background music for the "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" television advertisement.

Tilson Thomas, who was featured on "60 Minutes" Sunday night, focused primarily on what he called Copland's "immense contribution to American music." He credited Copland as the creator of "Pan-American" music, which spans all the backgrounds that composed the American landscape during the early to mid-20th century.

Other pieces Copland wrote, such as "Fanfare for the Common Man," are often played as backgrounds to many patriotic and frontier-style advertisements that Tilson Thomas labeled as "right-wing."

In fact, Copland was a "gay Jewish leftist" who believed in the power of education, particularly the arts, as a vehicle of social transformation, Tilson Thomas said.

The composer's lecture focused on the fact that Copland wanted his music to be simple and appeal to the masses while remaining meaningful.

Copland did this by drawing on many different types of music prevalent in America during the era, such as blues rhythms, as well as his own native musical themes.

"He wanted people to know what life was like in Brooklyn (during the 1920s)," Tilson Thomas said.

With a piano at his disposal, Tilson Thomas illustrated how Copland took extremely simple musical themes that could be easily mutated into either blues or Yiddish music.

The audience was captivated by Tilson Thomas' deliberate and powerful performance of Copland's "Piano Variations," which further illustrated the themes he had discussed and alluded to earlier.

Although the piece contained many dissonant musical moments, which are often discomforting to listeners, Tilson Thomas pointed out that these moments should not always be understood as negative. These moments of dissonance can also be used to show a blissful state tainted with a touch of sadness.

"This musical meditative existential place was essential to Aaron's work," he said.

Copland's genius stemmed from his attempts to have his music appeal to many different kinds of people. For him, music was something that everyone could have a stake in, Tilson Thomas said.

By carefully outlining, but not actually referencing directly folk, jazz or Latin themes in his music, Copland "leaves the spirit to fill in the outline" of the piece, he said.

Copland's purpose was to make his music very plain and to let it speak freely but keep its sense of intrinsic meaning, he said.

"Whoever you are, this music belongs to you," Tilson Thomas said.

Although the audience was comprised mostly of community members, some UC Berkeley students also attended. The students seemed very enthusiastic about Tilson Thomas' appearance.

"It was truly inspirational to hear the protege of such an American idol." said Sina Mohammadi, a UC Berkeley student.


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