Indian corn adds little to Elder’s illuminating visit to Dvořák’s “New World”

Sat Jun 20, 2009 at 3:56 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Friday night’s penultimate concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Dvořák Festival brought together in a single program (for the only time in this series) the Czech composer’s three most popular works: the Carnival Overture, the Cello Concerto and the Symphony No. 9,  From the New World

Referring to the festival’s earlier Beyond the Score presentation, which sought to examine “the many influences and forces” behind the New World Symphony, Sir Mark Elder spoke of how he believed Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha to be the “strongest” of these.  As such, reading excerpts from the epic poem before the first three movements of the New World would “make this familiar music more colorful.”  

Such a controversial thesis is rooted in the notion—encouraged early on even by the composer himself—that much of Dvořák’s music is derived from genuine Czech folk material. The reality is that while Dvořák often paraphrases many features and forms associated with Czech music, remarkably, most of his themes appear to be his own, yet are still evocative enough to sound familiar within a single hearing.

Dvořák never set out to collect folk material as, say, Bartok and Kodaly would in the early 20th century to use as material for thematic development in their own works, but rather, like Smetana, only set out to create the suggestion of a Czech aural palette. By extension, attempts made to relate Dvořák’s “American” works to music of Native Americans and the spirituals of African-Americans have also been chasing rainbows, since as the composer himself noted, “I have only composed in the spirit of such American national melodies.”        

In any event, does having an actor—in this instance, longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan—read from Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha add anything to the experience of hearing Dvořák’s music on its own terms?  It actually detracts, because the words would have us expecting to hear something that might evoke a glimpse of Native American color, but Dvořák’s opening movement never does.  Excerpts before the second and third movements fared slightly better because Dvořák is attempting, in the broadest sense, to offer aural postcards that at least in part are suggested by Longfellow: the wooing of Hiawatha in the second movement, and her wedding feast dance in the third. 

Still, the performance that Elder and the CSO offered of the New World was so illuminating on purely musical terms that no aural scene-painting was necessary.  The common language that Elder and the orchestra have developed over three weeks of Dvořák programs provided context and opportunity for a fresh look at this overdone warhorse. 

While the work is strong enough that even mediocre performances of it can still be effective and enjoyable, it really was as if this music were being heard for the first time, so refreshing a perspective did those involved provide. Leaving aside perpetual blunders all evening from principal horn Dale Clevenger, winds and strings played with sparkling clarity and fluidity, responding to Elder’s imaginative use of rubato, which sounded refreshingly tailor-made to Dvořák’s own intentions.

The dynamic build-ups to the grand themes were thrilling, particularly when set off so strikingly from contrasting sections by Elder employing such a wide dynamic palette.  Most refreshingly, Elder never lost sight of the overall structure and purpose of the piece within individual bits. 

By contrast, 27-year old cellist Alisa Weilerstein seemed to be swept away by individual passages rather than the work as a whole in a repeat performance of the Cello Concerto. Weilerstein went for a big, thick sound, over-emphasizing the sentimental and syrupy-sweet aspects of the piece and often substituting overdone vibrato and buzzing timbre for lyricism and sheer beauty of sound, despite achieving glorious sound in the upper range of her instrument when she chose to play quietly.      

The rousing performance of the Carnival Overture that opened the evening — the only performance of the work on the Festival — emphasized the loud and raucous aspects of the piece while keeping counterpoint clear and sections transparent and well-balanced.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Indian corn adds little to Elder’s illuminating visit to Dvořák’s “New World””

  1. Posted Jun 22, 2009 at 11:08 am by tom

    does anyone know what piece was played as the encore? the audience was asked to guess, but the name never revealed….it was a wondeerful peice though

  2. Posted Jun 23, 2009 at 10:44 am by Dennis Polkow

    Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride.

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