The SPCO’s recording of Appalachian Spring

Last December we took pride in posting about the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra’s 1958 recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which is a remarkable record for both artistic and technical reasons. Fans of Tchaikovsky are certain to have recordings of the Minneapolis Symphony (today the Minnesota Orchestra) in their collection –in addition to making the first recordings of the 1812 Overture to include the bells and cannons as originally composed (in mono in 1954 and stereo on that second recording), the Minneapolis Symphony produced the first complete recordings of the composers three magnificent ballets.

All of these recordings were made for Mercury Records during Antal Dorati’s eleven year residency as the Orchestra’s conductor — he is often regard as one of the finest interpreters of Tchaikovsky’s music on record, later conducting recordings of all six symphonies with the London Philharmonic, but the recordings he made at our own Northrop Auditorium are still regarded as some finest you’ll ever find. You have likely seen a copy of their 1812 Overture since there are more than a million of them out there. The gold record awarded by the RIAA hangs today in the office of current musical director Osmo Vänskä.

Because we are the best place to live in the entire world, the Twin Cities is home to not one but two world-class orchestras. The other is the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which is the only full-time professional chamber orchestra in the United States. The SPCO is every bit as awesome as the Minnesota Orchestra — each has in the past decade or so tackled the monumental task of performing Beethoven’s nine symphonies, and each has made many albums which are both best-sellers and critically acclaimed.

As the Minnesota Orchestra was, in its Minneapolis Symphony days, associated with Tchaikovsky’s three ballets, the SPCO has a deep connection to one written by another composer. It happens to be one of our favorite pieces of American music.

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The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s July 1979 recording of Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring was awarded the Grammy award for best chamber music performance, an honor only slightly sullied when then two-year-old Kanye West insisted it be taken away and given to Beyonce. Its a beautifully paced interpretation of the ballet, and a uniquely-engineered recording, making it of enduring interest to collectors. The record was made at the Sound 80 studio here in our neighborhood, overseen by engineer Tom Jung. The conductor was Dennis Russell Davies, a Juilliard graduate who spent eight years directing the SPCO, and is currently with the Symphony Orchestra in Basal in Switzerland.

On the flip side is presented Three Places in New England, one of Charles Ives’ most popular and distinctive pieces. That same July, the SPCO also recorded Schubert’s fifth symphony, and a third album by jazz group Flim and the BB’s was produced using the same 50.4 kHz digital recorder as a alternate to the intended direct-to-disc lathe. These three records are the earliest digital recordings made at Sound 80, and among the first digital recordings made for commercial release anywhere.

All three are of interest to audiophiles and record collectors, but the SPCO recording of Appalachian Spring is also a welcome return-to-form for the fine piece as well, as it is presented in Copland’s original instrumentation for a small chamber orchestra of thirteen musicians. While it had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Music after its debut in 1944, it is usually performed in an a weightier re-orchestration first composed soon after and popularized by Leonard Bernstein.

Copland himself conducted a revival of the original arrangement a few years earlier, commissioned by Columbia Records as part of its hit-or-miss “Copland Conducts Copland” series, a recording which likewise captures the earthy appeal unheard in the overlarge orchestra suite. As originally planned, his the ballet — which a bemused Copland often remarked was not inspired by the rolling mountains of Appalachia — presents a pastoral setting characterized by an inspiring sense of community and optimism. It is, along with his other ballets and his incidental music for Our Town, definitive Americana, while also something very much like our own version of Beethoven’s sixth symphony.

Until it was suggested he borrow its title from a Hart Crane poem, the piece was simply his Ballet for Martha, as he was working with legendary choreographer Martha Graham. In short it is the story of a congregation building a farmhouse for a pair of Pennsylvania newlyweds. Graham had commissioned Copland’s composition for a performance in the hall inside the Library of Congress, and its size determined his decision to arrange it for a small chamber orchestra. Like what we learned looking into the history of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture when posting the Minneapolis Symphony’s recording, the final score was influenced by utterly pedestrian circumstances.

The SPCO has performed Appalachian Spring as recently as on year ago, where it was conducted by Steven Schick (a recording of which you can hear here). Their original recording with Dennis Russell Davies on the Sound 80 record remains a monumental moment in Minnesota music, in many ways just as remarkable as the Dorati recordings which put the Minneapolis Symphony on the map in the fifties.

This weekend the SPCO will be performing Schubert’s Quartet in D Minor, Death and the Maiden, along with other pieces featuring violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. There is a free open rehearsal tomorrow afternoon.

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