“Nostalgia,” guest conductor James Gaffigan remarked to the Hollywood Bowl audience on Thursday night, “is the trait that has defined Copland’s Appalachian Spring.” This sentiment could very well have applied to the entirety of his program of Americana. Fatigued by the political discourse in recent years, a momentary escape into a sepia-tinted past when all seemed to be “better” is too good an opportunity for many to pass.

James Gaffigan
© Melchior Bargi

Yet the backgrounds of the major composers assembled on Gaffigan’s program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Thursday demonstrated that those good ol’ days of yesteryear were likely so many chimeras borne from wishful thinkers of the present. Aaron Copland was hounded in the immediate postwar years for his communist sympathies. Samuel Barber was marginalized by influential taste-makers who regarded his music as old-fashioned. Duke Ellington contended with the challenges of being black in the last decades of racially segregated America.

In Appalachian Spring, “nostalgia” was never even intended, as Copland had composed the work for Martha Graham with only a vague request for a work with an “American theme”. Gaffigan, despite his prefatory remarks, appeared to understand this; presenting a sleek, clean, bright rendering of the ballet that established the score’s roots in the balletic abstractions of Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète, rather than in American folklore. Even the arrival of the Shaker tune ‘Tis the Gift to be Simple was buttoned-down, shunning the spotlight, rather than the grasping towards it that one ordinarily hears. Under his direction Gaffigan restored the modernity of the work, dispensing with the gauzy, sentimental lens the work is often viewed through; displaying Copland as a global cosmopolitan who transcended the boundaries of nation.

The refulgence of James Ehnes’ violin stepped in as partner in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, a score which is nearly invariably praised for its neo-romanticism. Indeed, Gaffigan drew from the Los Angeles Philharmonic strings a shade more dew than in the Copland, but also reminded the audience that the concerto’s Art Deco romanticism, sweet-toned though it is, harkens less to Tchaikovsky, more to the terseness of Brahms and Sibelius. In the central movement, with its keening oboe solo a nod to the former composer, Ehnes took lyrical flight, soaring over the orchestra, yet careful to never lose sight of the ground. In the moto perpetuo finale, he emphasized the acerbic bite of the music, and its indebtedness to the motor rhythms of Prokofiev.

In the early 1960s, Duke Ellington cut an album called Will Big Bands Ever Come Back? The heyday of the jazz orchestra is the stuff of history, but his orchestral work Harlem at least has made a welcome return, appearing on Philharmonic programs for the second time this year. It could be argued that of the three 20th-century Americans, the Duke’s music was the most genuinely Romantic of all; like Franz Liszt by way of The Cotton Club. Yet nostalgia is kept at arm’s length. This is forward-looking music, exuberant, vital. From its opening trumpet growl, to its tumultuous dance sequences, and the climactic Tito Puente versus Gene Krupa percussion standoff, the work boldly makes clear its intent to move the listener emotionally. Gaffigan, abetted by the raucous, hard-swinging sound of the orchestra’s brass section, led a performance of irresistible rhythmic frenzy.

The brief All-American (a Los Angeles Philharmonic commission) by Laura Karpman was, in the context of the company it kept, a disappointingly bland and reactionary work. Essentially a collage of quotations of patriotic songs by female composers, Karpman’s earthbound realization of this musical crazy quilt was maddeningly dull. In the event, the composer’s notes proved to be more interesting than her nostalgia trap of a score itself.