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Secret Identity

The Sheldon plays host to a piano recital that will show Aaron Copland in a whole new light


The Aaron Copland Americans know and love is the composer of such popular works as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Fanfare for the Common Man. These works are definitive expressions of American optimism and have helped form an impression of this country's greatest composer as a kind of avuncular patriot, one who created music that cherished our homelier folk traditions. Despite how the advertising, film and television industries have appropriated familiar phrases from his compositions, endangering Copland's reputation by linking him to toothpaste, soda pop and golden-hued sentimentality, the best-known pieces remain admirable for their scope, sophistication and intelligence.

But there's another Copland, one who even during his career was considered a musical radical. Bruce Brubaker, who performs three piano compositions by Copland at the Sheldon Concert Hall next week, says this of one of the works, the lengthy, challenging "Piano Fantasy": "Copland really viewed the composition as going out on a limb, and I think it's true. It was viewed at the time as a very radical piece. It's almost a 12-tone piece. He felt he was doing something pretty far out. People received it that way, too. In the early performances of the piece, people asked, "What's Copland doing? This is the guy that wrote that music we liked?'"

Copland's "Piano Variations" and "Piano Sonata" are also part of the program. "When you hear these three piano pieces next to each other, it really packs a wallop," Brubaker says. "I think the "Variations' and the "Sonata' are really first-class pieces, but the "Fantasy' is a work that goes way beyond that. It's fair to say it's a work of genius. Yet it's a piece that nobody plays. How could we be sitting on this amazing piece? It's a very important part of the American piano repertoire of the last 100 years."

Brubaker, as a musician and a teacher, is committed to expanding the piano repertory, and an evening of the other Copland is part of that mission. "Copland's mis-served by the way most of us think about him. Ultimately, he was somebody who worked very widely. It's such a plurality of styles, which maybe makes him even more of an American composer, because isn't that what America is all about?"

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