Musical Adventures 3: American music, mostly from the mid-20th century

Pianist Andrew Cooperstock will feature music by George Walker

By Peter Alexander Feb. 1 at 5:05 p.m.

Andrew Cooperstock. Photo by Peter Schaaf.

Pianist Andrew Cooperstock is drawn to American music.

“I have enjoyed exploring 20th-century American music that speaks to me as an American and somebody born in the 20th century,” he says. “I’m interested in how composers express themselves. For Americans it’s especially interesting because there’s such a diversity of backgrounds.”

The CU music faculty member will explore some of the diverse voices in American music in this week’s online Faculty Tuesday recital (streamed starting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2). Anchoring the program is music by George Walker (1922-2018), the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for classical music, who taught at CU in the 1960s.

Cooperstock became interested in Walker through his own piano teacher, who was a close friend and classmate of the composer. Walker taught at CU 1968–69, and his son, violinist/composer Gregory Walker, still lives and teaches violin in Boulder.

But Cooperstock had in mind more than a recital of Walker’s works. “I thought it might be nice to put his music into context with some other American composers who were writing around the [middle of the century],” he says. In addition to the three sets by Walker, Cooperstock’s program will include pieces of pure Americana by his contemporaries Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. 

And just because he likes to play them there will be two pierces written in 2003, two Improvisations on Hassidic Melodies by Paul Schoenfield.

Cooperstock made it a point to play Walker’s most approachable works. “I choose his early music,” he says. “His music from that period is beautiful and lyrical and lush, but still with some modern twists.”

George Walker

The program opens with Walker’s “Variations on a Kentucky Folk Song,” a movement from his First Piano Sonata that has been published and played separately. The original song, “O Bury Me Beneath the Old Willow Tree,” has a long history in American folk music.

“I love what George Walker does with this piece,” Cooperstock says. “The theme’s a beautiful arrangement, and then he writes six short variations that are imaginative and exuberant. I really enjoy playing them.”

The centerpiece of the recital will be Walker’s Second Piano Sonata, written in 1956. “It’s virtuosic and it’s difficult, but it’s also lyrical and attractive at the same time,” Cooperstock says. He also notes that the music is especially virtuosic in recordings by the composer. “He does play his music so fast!”

Closing the program will be two short, contrasting pieces by Walker, a lyrical Prelude that he wrote for his own New York debut recital in 1945, and a more energetic Caprice that was one of his first efforts as a composition student in 1941. ”They’re short pieces,” Cooperstock says. “I thought that would be a nice ending.”

Barber‘s four-movement Excursions for piano is a kind of musical Cook’s Tour through various American musical idioms. “The first movement is a boogie-woogie with a walking bass, and the second movement is a blues,” Cooperstock explains. 

The third movement, which starts with a dreamy recall of the cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo,” is the hardest of the set. “It’s got very complicated rhythms, but you won’t hear that in the performance because it sounds improvised,” Cooperstock says. ”And then the whole piece ends with a square dance. Those are a lot of fun!”

Copland is represented on the program by two pieces. The first is a piano arrangement of music he wrote for the film Our Town. “I just love these pieces,” Cooperstock says. “They’re beautiful and calming. There’s this sense of old-fashioned simplicity and security. One of my students is playing the piece, and I thought, ‘I want to play this, too.’”

Cooperstock admits that the other Copland piece is less cozy. “I paired [Our Town] with a thorny work, because I thought we needed the other side of Copland,” he says. “[Night Thoughts] has some dissonances, but Copland was a very lyrical composer. Even in the middle of all this, some beautiful melody comes through.”

Paul Schoenfield

The final pieces added to the program came out of an experience Cooperstock had during the pandemic of playing for the daily meditation at the Jewish Community Center. For that, he picked two from a set of Six Improvisations on Hasidic Melodies by Paul Schoenfield. “I thought these Hasidic melodies would be perfect, and I picked two that were slower and lyrical and dreamy,” he says.

Cooperstock embraces the fact that he has programmed music that will not be familiar to his audience. “What it comes down to,” he says, “if somebody will be attracted to tune in to the program, that the music is good and it speaks to the audience, maybe they’ll try something new.”

He sees 2020 as a turning point, with the attention that has been directed to Walker and other composers of color. “I’m glad that composers who we didn’t know before are coming to light. This is a good time to be exploring different kinds of literature, and I hope that the trend will stay with us.”

Above all, he hopes his playing will reach people who have been dealing with so much in the past year. “I’ve thought a lot about the purpose of music, especially this year, and how music can bring us comfort,” he says. 

“Maybe this program can do that in some way.”

# # # # #

Faculty Tuesday: “George Walker, Underneath the Willow Tree”
Andrew Cooperstock, piano

George Walker: Variations on a Kentucky Folk Song (“O Bury Me Beneath the Willow Tree”), from Piano Sonata No. 1
Samuel Barber: Excursions
Paul Schoenfield: “Achat Sha’alti” “and “Nigun” from Six Improvisations on Hassidic Melodies
George Walker: Piano Sonata No. 2 
Aaron Copland: Three Excerpts from Our Town
Aaron Copland: Night Thoughts (Homage to Ives)
George Walker: Prelude and Caprice 

Streamed HERE and HERE at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2
Free or pay what you can

TO LEARN MORE about George Walker, watch this interview from PBS’ “State of the Arts.”

One thought on “Musical Adventures 3: American music, mostly from the mid-20th century

  1. Pingback: Musical Adventures 3: New arrivals in my mailbox | Sharps & Flatirons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s