We open Symphoria’s fifth full season with music from three centuries, all of it in one way or another “American.” The concert begins with a short, upbeat overture by Samuel Barber (1910-1981)—the 1931 School for Scandal. Barber has been one of the most-performed composers on Symphoria concerts; and this piece, his first orchestral work, reminds us of why he’s been so popular. Nominally inspired by Sheridan’s Restoration comedy, it has the infectious fizz necessary for a curtain-raiser—but it also has its share of heart-rending lyricism. Furthermore (and this is something else that endears Barber to Syracuse audiences), the lyricism takes the form of a poignant melody which, like the bittersweet moments in so many Barber works, gives first oboist Jillian Honn a chance to shine.
Barber didn’t aim at developing a particularly “nationalist” style in the way that Copland did in many of his works; he nonetheless became one of the icons of our national music. His spirit, in fact, indirectly influences tonight’s centerpiece, the 2012 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Mason Bates (b. 1977). Bates’s concerto, commissioned by our soloist Anne Akiko Meyers, might well be considered the last in a trilogy of great American violin concertos that began with Barber’s concerto and continued with the Corigliano “Red Violin” Concerto, both featured by Symphoria last season. Not only is there a teacher-student continuity among the three composers (Barber was Corigliano’s mentor, Corigliano in turn taught Bates), but all three works have at least two qualities in common: an immediacy that draws the audience in from the beginning, and a melodic beauty (heard especially in the big tune that appears throughout the Bates) that leaves you breathless.
That said, Bates’s Violin Concerto is hardly a knock-off. But it is a knock-out, with a character entirely its own. In three interconnected movements, the concerto is inspired by a dinosaur, the Archaeopteryx. Don’t expect anything slow and ponderous, however. Yes, the first movement, “Archaeopteryx,” starts, as our soloist puts it, “with a feeling as if Godzilla is coming through the water. There’s an ominous, heavy tread in the orchestra.” The Archaeopteryx, however, is a flying dinosaur that served, evolutionarily, as the transition between dinosaurs and birds. And for the most part, especially in the two outer movements, propulsion is key. “This is a very rhythmic, forward-moving concerto with lots of energy,” Anne points out. “Notes are flying all over the place. It’s like a non-stop marathon.
“There is pretty much no pause in the first movement,” she continues, “no break of any kind where you can inhale. You’re just running to the finish line for most of it.” And if she has, say, a contact lens issue? “I’m toast.” If you know the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, you might hear some points of contact—there are also traces of the American minimalists. Still, you’d never confuse Bates’s work with theirs.
In contrast, the second movement, centers on beauty. Titled “Lakebed Memories,” it describes the swampland where the fossil was discovered (and perhaps thoughts of earth-bound ancestors?). “It’s so funny,” says Anne, “because there are many musical markings in the score, like ‘play sensually.’ And I asked myself, how is a dinosaur dragging through the mud sexy? But I try to make that as sensual as I can! And then the third movement comes in, and it sounds like computer-code spewing, yet in a very fluid expressive way. It’s incredibly challenging for the orchestra and me—and just when you think that you can’t take any more energy and forward motion, it screeches to a halt and I have a monster cadenza to perform.” At least the orchestra gets a break. “Yes, the orchestra gets a rest and gets to watch me sweat some more. And then we all leap off into space and fly.”
After intermission comes the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) by Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904). Dvořák, of course, was Czech, not American, but “American” music has always had an international flavor. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, and our musical life has been enriched by the presence of composers like Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Korngold. Beyond that, many of our best U.S.-born composers had European training (especially in 20th century Paris); and even the first composer to gain an international reputation as “American,” Louis Moreau Gottschalk, took his inspiration as much from Latin America as from the United States.
In any case, the Czech Dvořák had a profound influence on American music during his years in the United States, 1892–95, as head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. In fact, it was Dvořák, during his time here, who was most vociferous about the need for American composers to look to the folk music of their own country, rather than to Europe, for inspiration. In part because of that, in part due to early encouragement from Dvořák himself, critics have sought out the American sources for the Symphony No. 9, especially themes from the African-American and Native American traditions—and they’ve found evidence in apparent references, say, to “Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and other tunes.
But how much Americana really haunts the score? It’s certainly true that the gorgeous theme of the slow movement maps onto the spiritual “Goin’ Home”—but that’s because the spiritual was written by Dvořák’s student William Arms Fisher after the symphony, and was specifically based on it. There’s no doubt, too, that Dvořák was partly inspired by Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (in fact, some of the music in the symphony was drawn from unfinished ideas for an opera based on that poem). Even so, there’s no authentic Native music in the score. In any case, later in his life, Dvořák insisted that he borrowed the spirit of American music rather than its substance—and in retrospect, the symphony sounds increasingly Czech. Indeed, especially given its quiet ending, it seems as nostalgic for the Old World as it is enthusiastic about the New. However you interpret it, though, it has remained one of the most beloved symphonies in the repertoire since its premiere. And rightly so.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org