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Connotations is a classical music composition for symphony orchestra written by American composer Aaron Copland. Commissioned by Leonard Bernstein in 1962 to commemorate the opening of Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts) in New York City, United States, this piece marks a departure from Copland's populist period, which began with El Salón México in 1936 and includes the works he is most famous for such as Appalachian Spring, Lincoln Portrait and Rodeo. It represents a return to a more dissonant style of composition in which Copland wrote from the end of his studies with French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and return from Europe in 1924 until the Great Depression. It was also Copland's first dodecaphonic work for orchestra, a style he had disparaged until he heard the music of French composer Pierre Boulez and adapted the method for himself in his Piano Quartet of 1950. While the composer had produced other orchestral works contemporary to Connotations, it was his first purely symphonic work since his Third Symphony, written in 1947.
Connotations was received negatively upon its premiere for its harmonic assertiveness and compositional style. The overall impression at the time was that, as critic Alex Ross later phrased it, "Copland was no longer in an ingratiating mood." The composer was accused by some critics of betraying his role as a tonal, populist composer to curry favor with younger composers and give the impression that his music still held contemporary relevance. Copland denied this accusation; he asserted that he had written Connotations as a twelve-tone work to give himself compositional options not available had he written it as a tonal one.
Part of the blame for Connotations' initial failure has been ascribed by Copland biographer Howard Pollack, among others, to Bernstein's "harsh and overblown" conducting. Bernstein, known in the classical music community as a long-time champion of Copland's music, had programmed the composer's pieces more frequently with the New York Philharmonic than those of any other living composer. However, these performances were mainly of works from the composer's populist period, with which the conductor was in full sympathy. He was less comfortable in pieces that were atonal or rhythmically disjunctive. While Bernstein might have performed the work purely out of service to an old friend, he was apparently unable to interpret this work persuasively. Subsequent performances with New York Philharmonic during its 1963 European tour and a 1999 all-Copland concert showed that the situation had not changed. Bad acoustics might have also played a part in the work's lack of success at its premiere.
More recent performances, led by conductors Pierre Boulez, Edo de Waart and Sixten Ehrling, have been acknowledged to show the music in a more positive light. Nevertheless, the overall reputation of the music remains mixed. Some critics, including composer John Adams, have remained critical of the work and considered Copland's use of serial techniques detrimental to his later music. Others, which include critics Michael Andrews and Peter Davis, have seen Connotations as proof of Copland's continued growth and inventiveness as a composer while not downplaying the work's melodic and harmonic harshness and potential difficulty overall for listeners.
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