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Although George Gershiwin, Leonard Bernstein and others can be cited as strong contenders to the throne, it is arguably Aaron Copland who will always serve as the fountainhead for transitioning classical music into a contemporary American phenomenon. His accessible, crowd-pleasing style seamlessly melded the contrapuntal rigors of the classical form with the stylings of the American popular song. The result is an endlessly quotable body of work with memorable themes such as “Hoedown,” “Appalachian Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” becoming familiar signposts on the road to modern classical stylings.

Such a reputation for merging the classical with the contemporary made Copland the natural choice for Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert (to be repeated Saturday) that commemorates the legacy of outgoing musical director Robert Spano and his admirable commitment to introducing new and innovative composers to the ASO stage. 

Spano’s style can be much too contained and conservative in his motions, and he can be unwilling to embrace the sort of bombast and enthusiasm that best captains the helm of a truly dynamic symphony orchestra. But it is here, in his singular commitment to keeping the classical format new and vital, that he deserves warm commendation.

The evening opened with the horns and industrial-strength percussion of “Fanfare for the Common Man” and it was here that Spano’s preternatural sense of restraint served the music well: The horns erupted with a sense of elder wisdom rather than youthful abandon. Nevertheless, those resplendent horns were given a bold, feral undercurrent by the pounding percussion section. The whole piece, totaling a mere three minutes, was less a by-the-numbers recitation of a well-entrenched classic than it was a piercing war cry from the ASO and one that generated an enthusiastic crowd response.

The second piece of the evening would maintain the theme of celebrating the new and the innovative with the premiere of a stellar new piece by long time Spano protégé Michael Gandolfi. Titled simply “Piano Concerto” and featuring guest pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the piece was a commission by Paul and Linnea Bert to commemorate Spano’s 20 years as musical director of the ASO. It is quite the legacy to behold — introductory remarks by ASO executive director Jennifer Barlament, as well as a short documentary film, elucidated Spano’s commitment bringing new music, pointing out that the ASO has performed more than 50 original works thanks to Spano’s direction.

For his part, Gandolfi’s “Piano Concerto” captures a sense of outside-the-box thinking that never sacrifices melody. The build up is slow — softly shimmering strings quiver just above gradually escalating horns, the piano eventually guiding the listener’s focus into a series of fluid runs. Gandolfi’s work is compositionally intricate but still indebted to modern folk forms, the end result being a majestic nod to the wonders of Americana and the soulful yearning of the human spirit.

The night would conclude with Copland’s epic Symphony No. 3. Copland would make a name for himself writing music meant to lift downtrodden spirits during the Great Depression and World War II, an endeavor that resulted in a long string of enduring works that culminated in 1946’s Third Symphony. Though Copland would maintain that the piece contains none of the folk influences apparent in his earlier works, it nevertheless carries the hallmarks of his style, namely the worshipful fixation on melody.

The result is a beautiful economy of arrangement in which every single instrument moves in consistent and unfailing service to the melodic content. Copland has no time for the fiendishly multi-layered arrangements of Beethoven or the whimsical flights of Mozart, instead stripping the music down to its most satisfying elements and applying only that music which will resonate in the listener’s soul.

As a through line of the works on the program, the recurring importance of melody cannot be overstated. Modern composers have a tendancy to eschew melody as a sort of bourgeois pretension from a bygone era, opting instead for explorations of tonality and rhythm. The simple reality is that these experiments, as fun as they may be, mostly fail to produce anything memorable. For that reason alone, Copland is the ideal standard bearer for the modern classical movement: always ready to incorporate contemporary styles while never wavering in its melodic focus.

For the ASO’s part, Copland’s notes dripped from their instruments like tender meat falling off the bone. Every note sated the soul and Spano’s enthusiasm for the material quickly overshadowed his normally erudite demeanor to the point that he finally unleashed the grandiose delivery I have always wanted to see from him. It was a performance so spectacular and unrelenting that one woman in the audience reflexively said, “Wow!” out loud in the silence following a particularly intense passage, earning an appreciative chuckle from the audience as a whole.

Wow, indeed. I entered the concert hall afraid that Spano wouldn’t rise to the occasion. Instead, I found myself leaving with a new appreciation for the man, his capacity as a conductor, and his commitment to artistic innovation. It was a thrilling and soul stirring evening at the symphony.

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