Colorado Symphony; Andrew Litton, conductor: Copland (BIS)
Andrew Litton has conducted a lot orchestras. He's currently the music director of the Colorado Symphony. He's made more than 100 recordings, one of which earned him a Grammy Award. His first recording project with the Colorado Symphony is also a first for Andrew Litton. It's an album filled with the American sound of Aaron Copland. "I'd been recording with the Swedish label BIS in Bergen, where I'd been Music Director since 2003," Litton explains, "and I said, 'I've got this great orchestra in Denver I'm starting with; would you be interested in recording?' And they said, 'Well, yes. We have no Copland in our catalog and it's a Wild West orchestra' … so I said, 'Sure, why not? We'll happily do Copland.'
"So we did the complete Billy the Kid and the complete Rodeo," Litton continues. "And it was so much fun for me and the Colorado Symphony to learn the rest of the pieces because you play the suites all the time … but not the complete ballets. And there really isn't that much more that was cut … but some of the music is absolutely gorgeous, and of course, when you play it all the way through, it makes total sense. So we had fun doing the complete ballets. And we did El Salón México and the Outdoor Overture. So it was a great first project with the Colorado Symphony for BIS and I'm very pleased with the results."
This is an incredibly vibrant recording. You'll immediately notice the playfulness in the winds and the brightness of the brass section. Andrew Litton told me everything you hear was carefully planned. "Yeah, it was very much my intention because I really feel this music needs this crispness," he says, "and of course there's no record company that helps you get that better than BIS. BIS's specialty really is to do many, many takes to get things as precise as possible. So it's maybe … purists might say, 'It's not like what it sounds like in concert.' And … yeah, that's true. But a concert goes by and it's done once. But when you have document that's going to last forever and it's the heritage of an orchestra at a specific time and that orchestra has the ability to play perfectly, why not go for it?
"And one of the challenges for this particular project for us was that it was what we call 'rehearse, record'," Litton says. "We hadn't performed the music in concert before … everything came together quickly and we said, 'Let's do it.' It was just a joy to watch the orchestra grow from first reading to the actual metaphorical red light of recording. It was just great to watch the transformation."
By recording these ballets in their entirety, you'll hear a few things that may be new to you, like the shoot-out. "And it's an extended gun battle from the one we're used to in the suite," Litton says, "so it really goes on for a while. You're like, 'OK, I think we get the message now.' But it was a lot of fun to record, and of course, our hall is brilliant for recording because it has a lot of reverberation. So the guns in particular sound quite impressive in our acoustic. And the celebration is great music I'm playing honkytonk piano on that as well. It's just really fun. It's Copland, again, capturing the cowboy-saloon sound with brilliant touches."
There's a lot of hootin' and hollerin' in Billy the Kid, and there's also a moment of reflection when Billy escapes to the desert. That piece is written in the form of the waltz, which Andrew says is really significant. "Don't forget," he says, "this was being danced to. And to stick a waltz in a ballet … somebody called Tchaikovsky had done that many, many times very successfully. So I think this made sense on a fundamental level as a dance feature. So I don't think of it in any other terms than that. You know, it's just clearly a chance for dancers to be able to show off, you know."
After the success of Billy the Kid, Copland was commissioned to write another Cowboy Ballet, this time with choreographer Agnes de Mille. "And I love the fact that this is all from a guy who was born in Brooklyn," Litton says. "Having been music director in Dallas for 12 years as I was, his mother actually grew up in Dallas. So there's the Western connection. She's related to the Neimann of Neimann Marcus. Anyway, the whole idea of conjuring up what a little Western town would sound like with the wooden structures and bar doors swinging and all of that Copland does so brilliantly. In both of those western ballets. It's incredible."
Andrew Litton was recently hired as the music director of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, so he does have soft spot for this art form, and for a few special moments in each of these Ballets by Aaron Copland. "You mentioned Billy's Celebration … I do love that," Litton says. "It's so joyful … in such an evil way. I do love Buckaroo Holiday, as you mentioned. I think it's just such joyous music and such great rhythms … really fun to conduct. But it's all fun. There's something deeply refreshing about Copland. There's an honesty and integrity and a kind of surface value that's, 'Take it or leave it, this is how I feel.' And I love that about his music. There's no fuss, no muss, no bother. It's here it is, folks. And of course, as a glimpse of Americana, there is no greater repertoire than what we recorded on this disc."