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Steve Metcalf has been writing about the musical life of this region, and the wider world, for more than 30 years. For 21 of those years, he was the full-time staff music critic of The Hartford Courant. During that period, via the L.A. Times/Washington Post news service, his reviews, profiles and feature stories appeared in 400 newspapers worldwide.He is also the former assistant dean and director of instrumental music at The Hartt School, where he founded and curated the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series. He is currently Director of the Presidents' College at the University of Hartford. Steve is also keyboardist emeritus of the needlessly loud rock band Duke and the Esoterics.Reach him at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra Sponsors an Uncommon Competition

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Opening night of the 2010 Harford Symphony Orchestra Talcott Mountain Music Festival in Simsbury, Connecticut.

In the rarefied category of sub-five-minute classical compositions of importance -- not a huge body of work -- Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” stands apart.

For one thing, it has become one of those pieces works that confers an instantly weighty, ceremonial feel to occasions, from presidential wreath-layings to high-school basketball senior nights. 

The piece, barely three minutes long and written for a modified brass choir plus timpani and percussion, has an interesting history, which we’ll get to in a moment.

But the reason for mentioning any of this is an enterprising competition just announced by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

The HSO is inviting composers to create a new fanfare, to be called “Fanfare for the Hartford Woman.” The piece must be scored for a similar instrumentation to the one Copland used, and must be approximately the same length. The winning entry will be performed multiple times by members of the HSO, and will collect a prize of $1,000. Deadline for submissions is April 1.

The “woman” part of title, incidentally, does not have a specific meaning, although HSO folks acknowledge that it refers, at least obliquely and informally, to Carolyn Kuan, the orchestra’s music director.

Credit Facebook

Given the brevity of the piece, and the likelihood of both above-average media attention and guaranteed performances, the competition will undoubtedly attract a lot of applicants. For more details of the competition, visit the HSO website.

Copland wrote a lot of music in his long life, which ended in 1990 at age 90. His output includes three symphonies, several full-length ballets, movie scores, concertos, various orchestral works, chamber music, a large body of piano pieces, and much more.

Yet it would be fair to say that the three-minute “Fanfare” did as much to cement his reputation, and his standing with American audiences as our avuncular “dean,” as anything he wrote.

The piece was commissioned in 1942 by the British-born conductor Eugene Goossens, who at the time was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. (Goossens has an interesting history in his own right, but you’ll have to look that up yourself.) Goossens asked a bunch of American composers to furnish short fanfares as a kind of tribute to America’s soldiers, then engaged in fighting WWII. Eighteen composers eventually responded to Goossen’s request but Copland’s piece was the only one that went on to become a repertoire staple.

Credit Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The “common man” title was Copland’s idea. He apparently took his inspiration from a now-celebrated speech given earlier in the year by Vice President Henry Wallace, who had declared that the world was entering the “century of the common man.”

Musically, the fanfare features many of the elements we find in Copland’s “populist” style: the open fifths and fourths alternating with major thirds and triads, the strong melodic outline, the prominent, and at times even startling percussion writing.

The piece seems to have been a hit from the outset. In fact Copland, who was never displeased to see his pieces attain wide popularity, was so pleasantly surprised by the reaction to the fanfare that a few years later he incorporated it into the final movement of his Third Symphony.

The fanfare become one of those all-purpose licks that announced Something Important (or in some cases Something Pompous) was about to happen, a little bit like the way Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” turned up everywhere after Kubrick’s “2001” was released.

It was heard as the theme music to TV shows (including “You Are There” and “CBS Sports Spectacular.”) Movie scores either quoted it, or shamelessly ripped it off. For years, the Rolling Stones used a taped recording as their live concert walk-on music. Friends have told me that they have seen Dylan use it as his own walk-on music, although it’s a little hard to picture Copland’s fanfare serving as a prelude to, say, “Tangled Up in Blue.” The Chicago Blackhawks still use it in their pre-game intros at every home game.

I guess the most celebrated appropriation was done by Emerson Lake and Palmer, the brainy 70s English rock group that had been among the first to actively mine classical works for musical raw material. EL&P’s treatment of the “Fanfare,” especially in its edited down single version, became an authentic global hit in 1977. It still sounds pretty good, perhaps because Copland’s spare, angular “tunes” nicely lend themselves to rockification. Copland himself was said to have been respectful of the EL&P treatment, possibly in part because the composer royalties he received would have been many times greater than anything he ever saw from the Piano Variations or “Connotations.”

Finally, we should remember that the HSO Competition is not the first effort to pay homage to “Fanfare” in a classical vein. In 1986, the American composer Joan Tower brought forth “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” a kind of tribute piece that she followed with several similar follow-up works.

And last, and almost certainly least, the redoubtable Peter Schickele, doing business as his alter ego P.D.Q. Bach, composed his own tribute a few decades ago. He called it “Fanfare for the Common Cold.”

Department of Locals Making Good

A few weeks ago in this space, I saluted Robert DeMaine, the former HSO cellist who had recently been named principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Credit Matthew Imaging

Now comes news of an additional gig for Robert: he has teamed with the pianist Jeffrey Biegel and former New York Phil concertmaster Glenn Dicterow to form the (what else?) Dicterow DeMaine Biegel Piano Trio. Good luck to them.

Sirena Huang, the brilliant South Windsor-raised violinist whose rise from child prodigy to 20-year-old professional performing artist we have all been privileged to witness around here, is currently competing in the inaugural Singapore International Violin Competition.

Earlier this week it was announced that Sirena, now a student at Juilliard in New York, had been selected as one of 12 semifinalists. She is the only American to reach the semis.

The contest, which carries a first prize of $50,000 and a Naxos recording contract, concludes January 21.

Credit Valentina Calà / Creative Commons
Creative Commons
A solidarity rally in Brussels, Belgium on January 7, 2015.

NousSommes Charlie

Among the many eloquent responses to the tragedies in Paris, here is an especially beautiful and moving one, from Joan Baez:

To the people of France, I wish to send my deepest sympathy to those most closely affected by the executions at Charlie Hebdo, and to a French public in mourning. Liberals and conservatives in equal measure understand the value and importance, not to mention joy, of satire, humor, nonsense, and courage in the 21st century. Which makes the executions at Charlie Hebdo more than enraging, more than terrifying, more than shocking (as there is little left to shock us in these times). It makes the murders, simply, heartbreaking. I ask permission to share in your grief. Thank you,? Joan Baez

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant’s fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

Steve Metcalf is an administrator, critic, journalist, arts consultant and composer. He writes the weekly Metcalf on Music blog for WNPR.org, and is the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School.
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