Interlochen celebrates the legacy of Aaron Copland

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Every summer hordes of Metro Detroiters wend their way to northwest Michigan to enjoy Lake Michigan’s beaches, the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Leelanau Peninsula’s wineries and microbreweries.

But there’s another spot some vacationers overlook: concerts at the Interlochen Arts Festival, about 15 minutes from Traverse City. This year there’s an added draw: A festival within the festival, “Aaron Copland: The World of an Uncommon Man,” a reference to the composer’s 1942 work “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

The concerts and panel discussions are intended not only to mark the 25th anniversary of Copland’s death, but also to celebrate the composer’s two visits to Interlochen in 1967 and 1970. In those visits Copland lectured, conducted and worked closely with students. In 1970 he also received an award there.

Christopher Gruits, executive director of Interlochen Presents, admits that Interlochen’s concerts are sometimes neglected because of all the other activities in northwest Michigan.

“This area of the state has grown so much and a lot of Baby Boomers are retiring up here,” he says. “So we’re competing for people relaxing on their boats or grilling steaks. But if you’re interested in the arts, this is a magical place to be.”

Since its founding in 1928, Interlochen Center for the Arts has been a magnet for talented students at its summer camp. In 1962, the Arts Academy, a boarding high school, began.

Copland and his music remain popular staples at concert halls throughout the world. Over the Fourth of July holiday, his “Lincoln Portrait” received heavy airplay. Director Spike Lee even used Copland’s music throughout his film “He Got Game.”

More than any other composer, Copland comes closest to being the embodiment of American music. Although he was born and bred in Brooklyn, he musically depicted the country’s rural landscape with yearning and beauty in such works as “Appalachian Spring” and “Rodeo,” sometimes quoting folk tunes and hymns.

But he also was influenced by another American invention, jazz, evident in such pieces as his “Piano Concerto” and “Clarinet Concerto.”

“He started very early trying to capture America in sound,” Gruits says. “He had this fundamental core training in 19th-century European music, but he combined it with American art forms and traditions.

“He figured out a way to capture the wide expanse of the prairies and the optimism and underlying rhythm of the United States.”

At every opportunity Copland waved the flag of American music, including in a speech he delivered at Interlochen.

“He talked about this underlying energy in American music and what made it uniquely American,” Gruits says.

The festival offers a panoply of Copland’s music. The composer brilliantly scored several films, and there will be screenings of “Our Town” (tonight) and “The Red Pony” (Monday). There will also be a performance of “Appalachian Spring” on Wednesday with the Martha Graham Dance Company, chamber music performed by the Emerson String Quartet, a concert version of the opera “The Tender Land” and a recital Wednesday of a song cycle set to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which will be sung by Gruits’ wife and Interlochen teacher, mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle.

Though regarded as the archetypal American composer, Copland ironically was hounded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading to the removal of the composer’s “Lincoln Portrait” from President Eisenhower’s inaugural concert in 1953.

“He addressed this in ‘The Tender Land,’ the idea of two strangers coming to town and the suspicion that surrounds people who aren’t like them,” Gruits says.

Despite his stature, Copland himself was himself something of an outsider,” Gruits notes.

“He’s known as this quintessentially American composer, but not many people mention that he was Jewish and that he was gay,” he says. “A lot of the older documentaries and press just don’t address this.

“But in fact, he was on the fringe of this mainstream American society he depicted so well.”

George Bulanda is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Aaron Copland: The World of an

Uncommon Man

Through Aug. 9

Interlochen Arts Festival


Tickets Prices vary; faculty concerts are free