If there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on in these divisive times, it’s that Abraham Lincoln was The Man. In fact, when it comes to presidential politics, it’s possible that’s the only thing they can agree upon. Honest Abe ranks as one of the top three American presidents of all time in virtually every poll and study ever conducted. Beyond his tremendous accomplishments, including keeping a country together in the midst of a bloody civil war, abolishing the horror that was slavery and modernizing and strengthening a devastated economy, the log cabin-living lawyer could give one hell of a speech. His words are still profound and relevant 150 years later — and in today’s divided climate, perhaps now more than ever.
If there’s an equivalent to Lincoln’s dominance when it comes to American composers, it’s undoubtedly Aaron Copland. Copland was literally born at the dawn of the new century in 1900 and passed away shortly before it ended at the age of 90. But during his long and prolific life, he helped define and actually shape how America was viewed musically around the world. His body of work, from symphonies to film soundtracks, operas and ballets, has come to define the sound of American music. His sweeping and lush harmonies are considered the sonic equivalent of the vast landscapes and the idea of freedom for which America is known.
Copland was drawn to a fellow visionary like Lincoln, and paid tribute to him by writing A Lincoln Portrait, a soaring, brass-heavy orchestral piece complete with a narrator who recites selections from Lincoln’s most powerful speeches, including the Gettysburg Address. First performed in 1942 with World War II looming, A Lincoln Portrait was an instant Copland classic, and over the years has attracted a who’s who of actors, politicians, astronauts, athletes and more who have provided the narration in special appearances alongside orchestras. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have narrated, along with actors Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones and Vincent Price, and even some downright stranger candidates like basketball legend Dr. J. It’s almost a rite of passage for a symphony to have a notable name perform A Lincoln Portrait alongside them.
The New West Symphony tackles A Lincoln Portrait this weekend, along with John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, a selection from Nixon in China and Symphony No. 7 in D Minor by Antonin Dvorak, all in the capable hands of renowned conductor Donato Cabrera. The narrator for Lincoln is an interesting but also epic choice. For the Saturday evening performance, Lincoln’s prose will be given voice by none other than Motown living legend William “Smokey” Robinson Jr., himself in many ways an American original in the world of popular music. The winner of every award imaginable, from Grammys to Kennedy Center Honors to induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and front-runner for secret owner of the fountain of youth, (seriously, he’s pushing 80 and looks like he’s in his 40s), Smokey has literally influenced generations of R&B singers and songwriters. The fact that his ultrasmooth and instantly recognizable voice is giving Lincoln’s verbiage a go, against a massive orchestral background, is frankly a tremendous pairing.
Despite different social and cultural backgrounds, and different centuries for that matter, Lincoln, Copland and Robinson are three vastly different Americans who have all had a massive influence on their country’s history in their chosen fields. And to see the three connected together, especially during these divided and difficult times, is a testament to what really can make America great again . . . remembering that our country’s greatest unity is its diversity.
The New West Symphony performs on Friday, Jan. 27, at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center, 800 Hobson Way; and on Saturday, Jan. 28, at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets and more information, call 866-776-8400 or visit www.newwestsymphony.org.