In a 1977 talk, Aaron Copland complained that concerts by America’s orchestras were still frustratingly dominated by the “great works of the past.” No American composer was suggesting that these great old works should not be played, Copland explained. “All we want to do is get in on it!” he said.
Copland addressed those comments that year to an audience at Alice Tully Hall before the inaugural concert of the American Composers Orchestra. On Tuesday night at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, a recording of Copland’s remarks was played before the American Composer Orchestra’s 40th Birthday Concert. The gist of his argument, alas, still applies today. The programs of American orchestras have remained overwhelmingly tilted toward works of the past, mostly the distant past.
Yes, much has changed for the better. In a program note, the directors of the American Composers Orchestra (A.C.O.) take pride that this essential ensemble has helped define “what it means to be American in 2017,” embracing gender, ethnic, national and stylistic diversity. Tuesday’s varied program offered exhilarating evidence.
It began with a feisty, jazzy piece by Francis Thorne, “Fanfare, Fugue and Funk” (1972). Mr. Thorne, the primary founder of the A.C.O., died in March at 94. His piece was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, another founder of the ensemble. Mr. Davies also ended the evening by leading Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige,” one of the American master’s still-overlooked concert works.
Next year’s 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990, was acknowledged with a performance of his Clarinet Sonata (1941-42), the composer’s first published work, which he wrote in his early 20s. It was performed in a 1994 orchestration by Sid Ramin, scored for clarinet, strings and percussion. The excellent clarinetist Derek Bermel brought warm colorings and moody reflectiveness to the solo part, while subtly drawing out all the jazzy touches.
There were two recent works by younger women: Paola Prestini and Elizabeth Ogonek, conducted by George Manahan, the orchestra’s dynamic music director. From her opera “Gilgamesh,” Ms. Prestini drew “Prelude and Aria,” which begins with heaving and ominous intensity and evolves into a plaintive vocal monologue, sung meltingly by the countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski. I had trouble following the overall structure in Ms. Ogonek’s “Sleep and Unremembrance.” Moment to moment, however, the piece was alive with piercing sonorities and fraught with episodes that erupted in fits and starts, brought out vividly by Mr. Manahan.