Andrew Litton was appointed Music Director of the Colorado Symphony in August of 2013. He succeeded Jeffrey Kahane, who had resigned early from his contract at the end of the 2009–2010, citing a case of severe hypertension. The Colorado Symphony is, itself, a successor, having been established in 1989 after the Denver Symphony disbanded before the end of their 1988–1989 season for financial reasons. Outside of the state of Colorado, the Colorado Symphony became known through recordings on Naxos made with Marin Alsop, who was Music Director between 1993 and 2005.
Under Litton the Colorado Symphony has established a new recording relationship with the Swedish BIS label. Last Friday saw the release of the debut album under this new relationship. It consists of four compositions by Aaron Copland. Most importantly it includes the complete scores for the two ballets most closely associated with Copland, “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo.” Each of these works is introduced by a shorter selection, “An Outdoor Overture” and “El Salón México,” respectively. In July of 2013, this site discussed a recording in the American Classics series on Naxos of the complete score for “Rodeo” performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Music Director Leonard Slatkin, but complete recordings of “Billy the Kid” are harder to find.
This is unfortunate, not only because the complete score for “Rodeo” adds relatively little to the four “dance episodes” that are usually performed in a concert setting but also because the full score for “Billy the Kid” offers examples of Copland’s approach to Americana that were eliminated from the orchestral suite he would subsequently prepare. The score is best known for its “Gun Battle” episode and the “Celebration” scene that follows Billy’s capture, which is sort of a danse macabre. The suite then elides over a series of scenes that cover Billy escaping prison and hiding in the desert with a Mexican girl (a waltz that includes a poignant arrangement of “Goodnight, Irene”). That quiet interlude is followed by Billy’s death. The suite then kicks back in with his funeral scene and the reprise of the “Open Prairie” music from the beginning. In other words the suite basically dismantles the fundamental narrative of the full ballet.
To be fair, most people who listen to the “Rodeo” dance episodes have no idea what the narrative of that ballet is. (It is basically about a tomboy, who wants to work as a ranch hand alongside the men until one of them steals her heart.) Under Litton’s direction lack of knowledge of the ballet may be a good thing. Agnes de Mille’s choreography was treacherously complex, as she herself admits in her memoir Dance to the Piper. As a result, anyone who has seen the ballet is likely to cringe when Litton introduces a breakneck accelerando towards the end of the “Buckaroo Holiday” scene. I cannot imagine any ballet company wanting him in the orchestra pit performing Copland’s music that way.
Beyond the problem of having to dance too fast, however, this album is a solid account of Copland’s music. In all four of the selections, it offers an unabashed slap-your-thigh delivery of many of the idioms through which Copland practically defined “American music.” That’s not bad for a nice Jewish boy who learned how to write American music from a French woman. (When de Mille told Copland that she wanted to make a ballet about the “real America,” Copland suggested that she set it on Ellis Island. As de Mille told the story in Dance to the Piper, she told Copland to go to Hell!) Now that Copland has gotten beyond those decades of overexposure, one can take a more detached view of his work; and Litton has certainly teased out many of his music’s finer qualities.