Orchestra maestro Leonard Slatkin tells a story about Appalachian Spring and its composer Aaron Copland, who was deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s in 1987. Several people were visiting him in his home in Peekskill, N.Y., and suddenly Copland, who had been unresponsive, rose out of his chair, walked to the piano and played six notes. Those notes comprise the two chords that form the backbone of his best known piece. It was as if to say, Slatkin remarked before conducting the Detroit Symphony in a 2014 performance of Appalachian Spring, that Copland wanted to convey that “I am still here” — or maybe, “that’s what I want you to remember of me.”
It is the chime of those final chords, at the end of the often-performed American suite, that sums up conductor Earl Lee’s favorite part.
Lee, who is also a renowned cellist, led 13 chamber musicians in a magical Appalachian Spring July 8 and 9 at Chamber Music Northwest’s performance at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. (It’ll also be available to view from home via videostream, July 22-Aug. 31.) The familiar 20-minute piece could have been lost in the midst of unofficial David Shifrin Week. The beloved clarinetist was back on stage playing in several concerts after retiring in 2020 as CMNW’s 40-year artistic director, and the audience was happy to hear him playing his instrument.
But Appalachian Spring, the second half of the evenings’ programs, was anything but lost, thanks to the musicians — and to Lee, who was conducting, among others, legendary cellist Fred Sherry, a regular at CMNW for longer than Shifrin led the festival. Sherry was one of Lee’s mentors when he was a cello student at Juilliard. Lee, making his conducting debut at CMNW this summer, said he was honored, rather than intimidated, to make music with Sherry and several other mentors.
Appalachian Spring was composed for a Martha Graham ballet in 1944, and later, as it’s become an orchestra regular, it has often been performed without a conductor. But this time, having a leader was a brilliant idea. Festival chamber artists are “coming and going constantly,” said Portland violist and composer Kenji Bunch, who played the piece both nights. “It makes it hard to get everyone together for long enough to do this effectively [that is, play without a conductor] so I think it was a wise and correct decision to bring in a conductor.”
Achieving the many shifts in dynamics, conductor Lee said, is a tall order without a lot of rehearsing. “Bringing out the dynamic varieties in a piece is one of the most important musical tools that can express emotions,” he said, and musicians vigorously practice those changes in rehearsal.
Yet Lee shaped the dynamics as if the group had rehearsed a million times instead of a few. He is not an overly demonstrative conductor in the style of Leonard Bernstein, but the subtle shifts in his body language and use of his hands indicated that he was thoroughly and quietly communicating the piece to the musicians.
“In more contemporary works with so many `moving parts’ and few rehearsals,” Shifrin said, “having Earl with us made for better performances and a smoother preparation process.”
Korean-born Lee is 37, and although he works as associate conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, it’s no easy undertaking leading former mentors and chamber-music superstars.
“You have a supergroup of players at the top of the profession who have all played this piece numerous times and have strong feelings on how it should go, so walking into that situation as conductor isn’t the easiest dynamic to negotiate,” said Bunch. “Earl managed this beautifully — as a clear leader directing traffic, gently shaping a very musical interpretation, and magically threading the needle by being respectful and at times deferential, but always confidently in control.”
Lee says he often studies scores with his cello: “I picture an imaginary audience in front of me and think to myself, what do I want to see? What would be helpful for me in this moment? But it is very easy to forget that you are conducting people instead of instruments.”
Flautist Tara Helen O’Connor, who has played at CMNW since 1999, says that Lee’s deft musicianship, shaped for years by his cello virtuosity, makes him an ideal director. This season she played flute in the Appalachian Spring ensemble and in David Ludwig’s world premiere, Les Adieux: for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble, performed July 10 and 11.
Lee also conducted that piece.
“He is such a natural conductor and comes to this art form as an accomplished instrumentalist first. This is the key to his great success,” said O’Connor, who has played with Lee in various ensembles. “He knows exactly what we need to see as musicians and this makes him such a fantastic conductor. He has the ears and musical ideas to shape the pieces.”
Copland preferred the smaller chamber version of Appalachian Spring, and said it was “closer to my original conception than the more opulent orchestrated version,” according to Ethan Allred’s CMNW program notes.
Appalachian Spring is based on the 19th-century Shaker song called Simple Gifts, with the words, “’Tis the gift to be simple; ’tis the gift to be free.” Though the music is not simple, the ballet tells the story of a newlywed couple preparing to make a life for themselves on the frontier, a steadfast American theme.
The piece “is a journey, and it’s important to make the transitions smoothly,’’ to make the voyage hang together, said Lee, who did just that as he forged the trail for the ensemble.
Lee is not only a classical cellist and conductor. In 2012, he toured with jazz musicians, including Gary Burton and the late Chick Corea along with the Harlem String Quartet, where he played guest cello. Unlike conducting, where musicians prefer to know what’s coming next, Lee had to adjust to the unanticipated surprises of jazz improvisation: “It was particularly mind-blowing that every performance was very different every night.”
He appears to be a musician of many genres and for all seasons, not only the spring.