The American genius of Aaron Copland

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TV's musical version of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is on the air! Cultural programmers on commercial TV, public TV, cable TV, and pay TV are fighting their own "tra-la-la war" as they compete for divas and prima donnas to appear on a burgeoning number of musical TV programs.

The appearances are to be live, live on tape, taped or filmed. Some visually oriented viewers might even call it opera's own "battle of the bulge" as big and big-time stars of the world of classical music offer their trills, warbles, and personalities to the highest bidders.

Public Broadcasting Service, which once had the whole field to itself, suddenly realizes that it is in a rough-and-tumble competition for talent. And it is a struggle which will get tougher as cultural pay TV and cable channels join this great culture rush of 1981.

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In the past few weeks, music lovers have been offered on PBS, through the auspices of WNET/NY, a superb potpourri "Gala of Stars," a taped-for-later-airing concert featuring such performers as Montserrat Cabballe, Victoria de los Angeles, hosted by Beverly Sills. It was the highlight of most PBS fund-raising drives which brought in the greatest number of subscribers ever to be mobilized in a single public television drive. More than $30 million was raised around the country, representing a 30 percent increase over last year. The average pledge, by the way, was around $39.

Then, only one night later, last Monday night, "Live from Lincoln Center" aired what some have proclaimed to be the concert of the century -- Marilyn Horne, Joan Sutherland, and Luciano Pavarotti. This triumphant trio performed live in a concert staged for the Lincoln Center audience with three strategically placed cameras for TV viewers and, in most major cities, FM-simulcast sound.

Early reports indicate that the concert attracted probably the greatest number of viewers ever to watch a no-compromise serious-music concert. I attended the concert and also watched its repeat -- and I must admit that the thrill of being at the actual performance was great, but I found additional joy in watching the close-ups and intermission interviews, available only in the televised version.

How much more can one expect from public broadcasting in the way of cultural programming?

Lots more. Tonight, for instance, viewers can tune in to a "Great Performances" live telecast of "The Tempest" ballet from the San Francisco Ballet. On Wednesdays there is a five-part series on "The Fabulous Philadelphians: From Ormandy to Muti."

Coming up on Wednesday is still another splendidly innovative arts program, the first in a "Kennedy Center Tonight" series, "A Copland Celebration!" (PBS, Wed., 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats)

This tribute to Aaron Copland on his 80th birthday is just a bit similar in format to the annual "Kennedy Center Honors" programs aired for the past few years on CBS in that there is an attempt to provide background information as well as straight performance. Executive producer Dale Bell of the originating station, WQED/Pittsburgh, told me: "I want the series to take a humanist approach and offer the viewer a distinctive look at an event that takes place on stage."

Thus there are informal backstage shots, rehearsal footage, interviews -- according to Mr. Bell he is creating "a prism refracted into a spectrum that gives you a better understanding of the subject." In this case that happens to be Copland. However, the informal views of Bernstein and Rostropovich are also marvelously revealing. Only host Hal Holbrook seems to be artificially inserted into the proceedings -- perhaps somebody more associated with music might have done better.

Viewers of this unique adventure in music humanism will come away knowing the rhythm of the lives as well as of the music of all the artists involved.

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