At the beginning of last month, Naxos released a new recording in their American Classics series that offered two opportunities to hear seldom-performed music by Aaron Copland. The first of these is the complete score that Copland composed for Agnes de Mille’s ballet “Rodeo.” In the concert hall this music is best known through Copland’s suite of what he called “four dance episodes;” and, by the clock, that music is only about five minutes shy of the full score. However, the extended version includes a generous piano solo; and Copland may have decided that, while this worked well enough in the orchestra pit for a ballet company, it did not really belong in the concert hall. The second was composed on a commission from Jerome Robbins for another new ballet. Copland called the score “Dance Panels;” but Robbins had trouble working with the music. Ultimately, he reduced the score to its underlying rhythmic counts and then discovered that the dancers didn’t need the music. The result was a ballet performed in silence under the title “Moves;” and “Dance Panels” survived as a concert work.
These two scores make for an interesting coupling. The choreography for “Rodeo” turned out to be an excellent example of American ballet at its wittiest. Indeed, it did so much to advance de Mille’s reputation that she was taken on to provide choreography for Oklahoma!, the first musical in which dance advanced a critical episode in the plot, rather than serving merely as an entertaining add-on. “Dance Panels,” on the other hand, was a study in dance forms, making it a distant descendant of the Baroque suite but with a much stronger preference for 3/4 time.
The recent Naxos release, available for download from ClassicsOnline, features the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Music Director, Leonard Slatkin. The interpretations show a clear awareness of just how much the rhetoric changes as one moves from de Mille’s comic story of cowboy life to the domain of more abstract ballet. Those who know only the dance episodes (and, for that matter, those who know de Mille only from Oklahoma!) are probably unaware of the full scope of de Mille’s wit. Slatkin, however, seems to understand when de Mille’s was going for the belly laugh; and, even in the absence of dancers on a stage, he succeeds in eliciting that effect. On the other hand he conducts “Dance Panels” with a fair share of serenity, even in the portions with livelier tempo markings. One could almost say that he chose to approach the score as if it were Maurice Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales” with a strong American accent.
These two moderately long ballet scores are followed by two of Copland’s well-loved short pieces: “El Salón Mexico” and “Danzón Cubano.” These turn out to reflect much of that same complementary relation between the longer works. “El Salón Mexico” evokes a raucous dive bar (“salón” as in “saloon”) at some unspecified location south of the Rio Grande, while the Cuban piece depicts a dance hall with a more dignified setting (that lets its hair down for brief moments). Here, again, the listener will appreciate the compare-and-contrast approach that Slatkin has taken to these pieces. However much of this CD may be familiar to most listeners, Slatkin has teased out new ways to approach the music, making even the most familiar passages sound fresher than ever.