Copland's 'Lincoln Portrait' opens symphony concert

CorrespondentFebruary 16, 2013 

Resident Conductor William Henry Curry will conduct "Explorations: Freedom " in which the North Carolina Symphony commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

COURTESY OF MICHAEL ZIRKLE

  • Details

    What: N.C. Symphony concert honoring the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

    Where: Seabrook Auditorium, Fayetteville State University, Thursday; Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh, Friday and Saturday.

    When: 8 p.m. for each concert.

    Tickets: $30 for Fayetteville concert; $18-$50 in Raleigh.

    Info: 919-733-2750 or ncsymphony.org

Orchestral concerts have always been part of the Emancipation Proclamation. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the document freeing slaves in the Confederate States on Jan. 1, 1863, musicians gathered in Boston’s Music Hall to celebrate the signing with works by Handel, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Since then, similar commemorative concerts have been held over the years in cities around the country.

For the proclamation’s 150th anniversary, the N.C. Symphony plays celebratory programs this week in Fayetteville and Raleigh. The concerts have a Civil War theme enhanced with special vocal and visual elements.

Resident Conductor William Henry Curry began planning the selections 18 months ago.

“It was easy to pick the first piece,” he recalled recently. “I’ve always been madly in love with Aaron Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait.’ It’s my favorite piece by an American composer.”

Copland wrote “Lincoln Portrait” in 1942 as a patriotic gesture during World War II. The 15-minute work has a simple beauty and includes a narrator speaking Lincoln’s words from debates, Congressional speeches and the Gettysburg Address.

“The piece is an example of good music that is also popular,” Curry said. “Copland did not compromise, he just made his music direct.” The piece is often performed with celebrity narrators, from politicians and astronauts to singers and actors.

Here the narrator is David Hartman, former host of “Good Morning America” and television actor. Hartman also loves the “Lincoln Portrait” and has narrated it once before, in a Fourth of July concert under the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

“The music is so powerful, even if you leave out the words,” Hartman said in an interview from his Durham home. “The words are spare but in each quotation, Lincoln’s values come jumping out.” The last part of the narration comes from the Gettysburg Address, which Hartman said makes the performances significant for him, as he was asked to read Lincoln’s famous text at the Gettysburg National Military Park a few years ago.

Although a pro at performing live, Hartman doesn’t think his role is easy. “The narration is a bit tricky musically,” he said. “It’s very carefully written, with each line beginning on a specific beat within a bar of the score.”

For these performances, vivid photographs from the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement will be projected on a 440-square-foot, three-part panoramic screen suspended above the orchestra. It’s the work of James Westwater, who puts the photos together in an art form he calls “photochoreography.” He manipulates the images during the concert, precisely cuing them to changes in the music and text.

Since 1973, Westwater has illustrated classical pieces for more than 160 orchestras. His “Lincoln Portrait” program, commissioned to celebrate Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009, uses 300 photographs from the Library of Congress.

“I listened very carefully to the piece and noted the effect it had on me,” Westwater said in a phone interview from his home in Utah. “Then I selected images that illustrated the themes the piece brought to mind.”

He calls his program “The Eternal Struggle,” a phrase from one of Lincoln’s debates that Westwater thinks is singularly appropriate.

“The struggle for equality is never over,” he said. “It’s also a struggle we all face not to feel superior to anyone else.”

Conductor Curry fills out his all-American program with other pieces relating to the Civil War period. “The Wound Dresser” is a 1988 vocal work by John Adams (whom Curry calls “the Copland of our time”) incorporating Walt Whitman’s poem about nursing soldiers in the Civil War, sung here by baritone Scott MacLeod. Charles Ives’ 1901 Symphony No. 2 is filled with familiar American hymns, folk songs and spirituals, while Roy Harris’ 1934 orchestration of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” makes a fitting cap to an evening celebrating a document that forever changed America.

Dicks: music_theater@nc.rr.com

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