Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reviews from Elsewhere: Austin Symphony's Mixed-Media Exploration of Dvorak's New World Symphony, January 14-15

Found on-line at Paul E. Robinson's www.artoftheconductor.com, January 24:

Peter Bay, conductor, Austin Symphony (via www.artoftheconductor.com)


Austin Symphony’s New World “Beyond the Score”

By Paul E. Robinson

It is always a difficult business to “educate” the classical music audience without talking down to them on the one hand or talking over their heads on the other, and while some subscribers welcome non-musical elements in a concert, others hate them.

The Austin Symphony and conductor Peter Bay deserve full marks for making a valiant effort to both educate and entertain at their Long Center concert last week.

In the first half of the concert, we were given some background on the piece courtesy of the Chicago Symphony’s (CSO) “Beyond the Score” series, a multi-media production incorporating a giant screen over the orchestra, a narrator, two actors, a singer and a pianist. This innovative opening to the concert introduced us to Dvořák the man and the composer, and told us something about his approximately two-year stint (1892-95) in New York as head of the National Conservatory. More importantly, it explored all the elements that inspired Dvořák to create his most famous composition. In the second half, we had a complete performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor “From the New World.” [. . .]

Beyond the Score More Fiction than Fact

In this “Beyond the Score” presentation of Dvořák’s “New World Symphony,” McBurney has concentrated on why it is called “From the New World” and made extensive use of Michael Beckerman’s entertaining but highly speculative book “New Worlds of Dvořák.”

The impression left by the “Beyond the Score” presentation is that the middle movements of the symphony are very closely related to the Hiawatha story as told in Longfellow’s poem. We are also left with the impression that Dvořák used actual African-American songs in the symphony. Neither impression is factual. [. . . ]

What did Dvořák have to say on this subject? In a letter written in 1900, he reflected his annoyance with the whole enterprise: “But forget that nonsense, the notion that I used Indian and American melodies, because it is a lie! I tried only to compose in the spirit of those national American melodies.” [. . .]

Taking Beyond the Score Beyond the Familiar

Whether serious or silly, all these stories and anecdotes are amusing and colorful and help to enliven multi-media presentations.

I spoke to several members of the audience after the presentation. They certainly enjoyed it. They felt they learned more about the composer and they embraced the use of visual media and live actors; upon close questioning, however, it also became apparent that they had embraced the still debated message McBurney conveyed, whether deliberately or inadvertently, as factual. i.e., that 1) the symphony quotes “negro” spirituals, and 2) the symphony tells the story of Hiawatha and Minnehaha.

So much for music education.

[. . . .]

In the End, The Sound, not the Story Stirs the Heart

After intermission, we experienced the music without the media, and it was a pleasure. In spite of the familiarity – over-familiarity? – of the piece, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony gave it a fresh and committed performance.

The orchestra was without its regular concertmaster Jessica Mathaes. Former concertmaster Eugene Gratovich led with authority. All sections were in top form. Special kudos to the horn section, and to the double basses whose difficult four-part chords at the end of the Largo were perfectly in tune, and, of course, to the excellent English horn soloist who played the famous tune earlier in the same movement, with beautiful tone and phrasing.

Click to read Paul E. Robinson's full text at www.artoftheconductor.com . . . .

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