Copyright © Markand Thakar, 2000
Commentary for National Public Radio, Performance Today
First Aired, January 4, 2000

Copland's Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! This is the name of a ballet by Aaron Copland, a work that I have always loved. This is music that spoke to me immediately and has remained very close to my heart. So imagine my delight when the New York Philharmonic asked me to conduct this work on the Completely Copland festival this season.

Okay, well it didn't exactly happen like that. The truth is, before I was asked to conduct Hear Ye! Hear Ye! on the Completely Copland festival, not only was I not familiar with the music, but I didn't even know that such a work existed. And when I heard the one available recording it didn't really speak to me.

But the invitation to lead one of the world's great orchestras in its tribute to one of the century's great composers was a singular honor, and I decided I could learn to love the piece.

I began by getting to know the story, which is charming. It takes place in a courtroom, where three witnesses tell dramatically different versions of the same event: a murder in a nightclub. The hostess, a Mae West type testifies first. She recalls the evening opening with a hot, jazzy chorus line dance, followed by a seductive pas-de-deux in which the woman pulled out a gun and shot her partner. Next to testify is a honeymoon couple, and they remember a dreamy chorus line dance, followed by a romantic pas-de-deux, when a chorus girl ran out and shot the man. Finally the waiter is sworn in, and he is terrified. He describes a frenzied chorus line dance followed by a foreboding pas-de-deux, with the murder committed by a stranger in the crowd.

Great theater, but without dancers the music seemed disjunct, and long: a 33-minute succession of catchy, jazzy fragments. Ballet music almost always comes to the concert stage in shortened form and Copland brought out suite versions of Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and most notably, Appalachian Spring.

Would it work if I extracted a suite from Hear Ye! Hear Ye! ? What would I cut? The three pairs of dances are very engaging, so I needed to leave those in. And to tie things together I could retain some of the swearing-in music for each witness. That inane attorney's music and jury music isn't necessary. Hmmm, the middle section of this dance goes on forever -- OUT. And that one, repetitive. OUT. The Overture has some cute music, but it doesn't really fit ...GONE.

And little by little the piece took shape. My suite version that you're about to hear opens with the judge's gavel ("Hear Ye! Hear Ye!") and a take-off on the national anthem. Three times we hear a witness sworn in, followed by their description of the two dances and then the pistol shot, and at the end we're back in the courtroom with the verdict -- guilty! guilty! guilty!.

After spending weeks up to my elbow in the score of Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, along with red pencils and reams of manuscript paper, I began to appreciate what I had missed: Copland's genius for pulling you into the moment, from playful to romantic to dramatic, all in the most engaging way.

Having conducted this suite from Hear Ye! Hear Ye! now with several orchestras I've come to love it, and it's now music that -- yes -- is very close to my heart!

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