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Madison Symphony Orchestra chronicles Dvorák's trip to America in multimedia Beyond the Score
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Beyond the Score explored the 'New World' Symphony.
Credit:Greg Anderson

Beyond the Score, a series of programs about the people and stories behind famous classical works, has attracted considerable attention since it was developed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005. The Madison Symphony Orchestra brought one such program to Overture Hall on Sunday, Jan. 26. It dealt with Antonin Dvorák's immensely popular Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."

The idea behind these programs is certainly commendable: to give some depth of background to the work in question, providing the chance for deeper understanding of its origins and character. In this case, a narration was read by Anders Yocom, words of the composer were read by a costumed David Daniel, and other texts were read by James Ridge. Yocom is known for his work on Wisconsin Public Radio, and the latter two presenters are members of American Players Theatre. Bits of music, to illustrate the explanations, were played by the orchestra, under conductor John DeMain.

I suppose there are still some music lovers who think the composer's last symphony, created during the first year of his residence in New York City, is nothing more than a compilation of American Indian and African American Spiritual melodies. But the nature of Dvorák's score is pretty well known by now. The work is a synthesis of a homesick composer's pining for his Bohemian homeland, while drawing upon his Czech and Austro-German backgrounds to react to what he found interesting in the American musical scene in the 1890s.

What he found was, of course, the music of African Americans and American Indians. Of the latter, he knew mostly what he had absorbed from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s fanciful poem The Song of Hiawatha, on which he dreamed of composing an opera. But that poem was hardly a direct and true reflection of American Indian cultures, and it was supplemented by little more than bad editions of tribal tunes and songs. Dvorák's acquaintance with the African American Spiritual was, on the other hand, more solidly founded, especially thanks to his student Harry T. Burleigh, a singer who introduced him to a live literature he could convey with beauty and authenticity.

The Beyond the Score script bends over backwards to favor the American Indian side of Dvorák's influences. In the MSO's presentation, a mezzo-soprano (Jacqueline Colbert) hardly represented the contribution of Burleigh, who was a baritone and a cultivated singer. The best parts of the script highlighted the connections between Dvorák’s themes and motives and their "American" and "European" antecedents. Such probings gave valuable perspective on his compositional methods, as well as his influences.

On the other hand, there were shortcomings. Dvorák's use of sonata form was misrepresented as something uniquely his, while the "reminiscence," revisitings of earlier musical elements, was a common practice going back to Beethoven (not to mention Wagner). Insufficient attention was given to Dvorák's student and secretary, Joseph Kovarik, whose name was mispronounced. Kovarik was instrumental in persuading the Dvorák to accept the New York job offer, and he convinced the composer to spend the summer of 1893 in his own hometown of Spillville, Iowa. It was there, in the months after the writing of the Ninth Symphony, that Dvorák reacted further to the American scene, in his familiar "American" Quartet, Op. 96, and his sublime Viola Quintet, Op. 97. Following the Spillville stay, Dvorák visited Hiawatha territory in Minnesota, attended the Columbian World's Fair in Chicago, and traveled to see Niagara Falls. After this, he returned to New York City. These details deserved some notice.

But the biggest failure of this Beyond the Score program was its projected photography. Though some images were indeed relevant and pointed, most reflected the current fad of having visual material continually pumped out to audiences, presumed to be at risk of falling asleep. I frequently found this distracting and counterproductive. In general, it seemed that too much of the program's goal was the hard selling of the already oversold. But Beyond the Score is a successful series, and a little local carping is not likely to affect its further unfolding.

There was also, after the intermission, a full performance of the Ninth Symphony, a work guaranteed to win the obligatory standing ovation at the end. This is, of course, a rich and splendid score. Whether or not listening to it after the Beyond the Score program made for a new and totally enlightened experience is a matter of personal judgment. DeMain and his orchestra gave it a powerful and deeply satisfying performance. I was most impressed by his handling of the second movement, which was more thoughtful and sensitive than other conductors are likely to do. It was not just "Goin' home" phoniness, but really expressive musical perception. A performance like that is the real illumination.

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