PBS offers fanfare for Copland

Aaron Copland, the son of Jewish immigrants, was "our Bach" as composer David Del Tredici put it, the quintessential American composer.

Copland made a virtue of monumental simplicity in such works as "Appalachian Spring," "Rodeo," and "Billy the Kid." His "Fanfare for the Common Man" is almost an alternate or phantom national anthem, as a new documentary, Copland's America, so skillfully illustrates on "Great Performances" this Sunday on PBS (check local listings).

We hear from Copland himself in wonderful archival interviews and from such musical lights as Leonard Bernstein, John Corigliano, and Mr. Del Tredici as well as Copland biographer Howard Pollack and composer/conductor Jonathan Sheffer, who leads the Eos orchestra through various famous and more obscure Copland works. It is Sheffer's voice and orchestra that lends form to this excellent film.

"Copland almost single-handedly created this sound we call American music," Mr. Sheffer said in a recent interview.

Sheffer refers to Mr. Corigliano's interview in the film when he points out that Copland's directions for a certain passage might read "play with simplicity," where a European composer might write "with angst" or "with emotion."

"There is a directness, an honesty, a lack of sentimentality that is uniquely American in our art and music," says Sheffer. "We are a people who tend to look our culture squarely in the eye.... and certainly [Copland] was.

"Copland was at his peak at a time when hopefulness was on the rise," says the conductor. "By the time the Depression was coming to an end and the war came, [these] crises summoned up in him some of his greatest music."

Aaron Copland was a highly trained composer in the French school - trained by the greatest teacher of that school, Nadia Boulanger. His was a very sophisticated set of tools, says Sheffer. It took highly sophisticated decisions for Copland's music to be "simple."

If Dvorak could write American music (which he did in The New World Symphony) using American folk songs, then Copland would write his own folk music. "Copland came along and said, 'I grew up in America and I've been trained in Europe and I'm going to put these two together,' " says Sheffer. "He took the spirit of jazz and of folk music and created his unique blend of American folk music and European smarts."

Copland was a modern composer in many ways, though he felt disconnected with his times toward the end of his life.

"I think he was a very hopeful person," says Sheffer, "but when the world changed, he found himself out of sync with the culture." This episode of Great Performances brings us into sync with Copland.

TV continues to look for creative relationships with the movies. In a very unusual deal, Fox Family Channel has joined forces with Providence Entertainment to present the feature, The Amati Girls. It will be released today in selected theaters across the country, six weeks before its world television premiere (on Fox Family, of course). The film will air several times, then return to Providence for six months for an exclusive video release before returning to Fox Family. Asked if deals like these are the wave of the future, Fox Family president, Maureen Smith said, "I think whenever there's a good idea in television, it catches on."

In "The Amati Girls," an extended Italian-American family tries to find a sense of balance between ancient traditions and modern expectations. The mother (Cloris Leachman) was subservient to her husband and her oldest daughter (Mercedes Ruehl) follows her pattern. But while her younger sisters blame her, she does stand up to her husband without rejecting him.

The women are complex, not neurotic. None of the men is perfect, none beyond redemption, and each of them needs and wants lasting relationships with women. Sentimental or not, there's more realism and compelling ideas here than in A Girl Thing (Showtime, Jan. 20, Parts 1 and 2; Jan. 27, Parts 3 and 4, 8-10 p.m.).

This four-part mini could have done something outstanding with actors like Kate Capshaw, Stockard Channing, Mia Farrow, Camryn Manheim, and Scott Bakula. So much talent, so little to say. The inescapable message is: Men bad, women neurotic.

There are other, worthier messages, too, but they are overshadowed. In Part 2, for example, Glenne Headly, Rebecca DeMornay, and Allison Janney ("West Wing") star as members of a dysfunctional family who gather at their mother's funeral. Later they watch a video in which mom tells them they must stay together in her house for a week in order to inherit the family fortune. They all cringe at the prospect.

DeMornay's character is the peacekeeper, but Janney's and Headly's keep her hopping. When Headly's character finds out she is adopted, the family dynamics change suddenly and all the sisters rise to the occasion. There is a message here about the bonds of love that do supercede the bonds of blood, and as uneven as it is, it's point is not hopelessly convoluted.

Two of the other stories are about revenge, and though revenge is not supposed to be as satisfying as the characters imagine, the stories themselves do nothing to prove that observation. But worst of all is the psycho-babble spouted by the psychiatrist that each of the protagonists visits for help.

Channing is always engaging, but she can't save the shallow material, as she cautions how tough life is and how we have to do the best we can. Gee, how profound.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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