Tag Archives: Dvorak

American Masterpieces

In my experience, American music is not a staple of the symphony orchestra repertoire. It’s February, and in my orchestra we are already well into our rehearsal cycle for the winter concert. It is going to be a “Three B’s” concert: Bach, Beethoven, and Bruch, three well-known and beloved non-American composers.

Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 9.21.51 PMLast concert we did something different. The program included William Grant Still’s “Afro-American” symphony, written in 1930 and first performed in Rochester NY, and a movement from Dvorak’s “American” string quintet No. 3, Op. 97, written in Spillville IA in 1893. Neither of these pieces was known to me before I started preparing them for this concert, and I’m writing about them here to bring more attention to these American masterpieces.

The “Afro-American” symphony is the first symphony written by an African-American composer to be performed by a major orchestra. Even the sheet music was a little different, written in the composer’s own charming and quite legible handwriting:

StillVlnI

And insured for thousands of dollars:

Warning

Still gave each movement a title: LongingSorrowHumor, and Aspiration, and he included with the symphony some short poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Once you figure out how to read the manuscript, the symphony is challenging, but not intimidatingly so. It uses jazz, blues, and gospel themes in a traditional, tonal, 4-movement structure. It also employs a banjo in the 3rd movement. I immediately said, as a shorthand, “oh, it sounds like Gershwin.”

It turns out plenty of other people think so too. Still and Gershwin knew each other and played music together. Although scholars don’t agree on this issue, it is possible that Gershwin borrowed the famous “I’ve got rhythm” motif from Still. The same motif can be heard clearly in the symphony’s 3rd movement.

The “American” quintet was written immediately after the more famous “American” quartet, during the summer of 1893 when Dvorak was living in Spillville IA. In fact, this piece isn’t always referred to as “American,” although there are a number of high-powered reviewers and references who use the term, for example this review from Gramophone, or this clip from the BBC.

Our group decided to do it for a more prosaic reason: after performing the Schubert cello quintet last year, we needed another quintet. And one of our cellists was learning to play the alto violin, which is tuned like a viola. So he took the viola 2 part. We played the first movement in the spring, and it served as the warm-up for me before my Telemann concerto performance.

The highlight of this movement for me was my viola solo about 2 minutes in. It is a plaintive melody, which I decided sounded better fingered high up on the D-string, rather than on the higher, shriller A-string. After I read that a group of Native Americans visited Spillville while Dvorak was composing this piece, I hear sadness in the melody along with its beauty. The drum-like viola 2 solo that opens the piece also brings Native music to mind.

Reviewing this concert to write the blog, I realize that so much is missing from this account. It’s very hard to write program notes; one is tempted to say “Just listen to the music!” But I hope that these lesser-known American masterpieces will find their way into more concert programs in the future!

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Here’s my card

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werner22brigitte, Pixabay 

Growing up and as a student, I didn’t view violin soloists as regular people. They were a breed apart, and they played music that was so far out of my reach that I couldn’t even imagine it. Otherworldly images on album covers and in galleries tended to reinforce this notion. I find these images beautiful, but more intimidating than not.

Back in Massachusetts when I was in the Philharmonic Society of Arlington, we had a cellist whose day job was graphic designer. He made the posters for our concerts. They were lovely: colorful, artistic, ornate and a little quirky, like the orchestra itself. It was always a treat to see what the poster would look like a month before the concert rolled around. And we were fortunate: he donated his services for free.

FallConcert
PSA poster by Arch MacInnis

One aspect of graphic design that these posters never had, though, was photographs of people’s faces. We were a volunteer organization and we sometimes had competition-winner soloists whose pictures we used for online and print publicity, but the posters were different. I had a short concertmaster solo one year, in the Tchiakovsky “Mozartiana” suite, and while I told all my friends and family and they brought me flowers at the end, I wasn’t on the poster (much to my relief!)

AfterMozartiana
With my kids, after “Mozartiana”

Then last year, after moving to California and becoming an almost-full-time violist, I had the privilege of being in a different orchestra, the South Bay Philharmonic, accompanying the concertmaster, Gene Huang, on the Mendelssohn violin concerto, and the principal cellist, Harris Karsch, performing the Popper Hungarian Rhapsody.

I also play with them in a quintet, and seeing my own chamber music partners perform major solo works was an inspiration to me. This time, unlike with concerto competition winners who might fly in only for the dress rehearsal and concert, I was able to hear the pieces at the beginning, before they were polished. While the final product was amazing to watch and listen to, I also saw how much time and work were needed to get there. They prepared these performances while holding down full-time Silicon Valley tech jobs, as well as the regular ebb and flow of weekly orchestra rehearsals and weekend chamber music get-togethers.

SBPSpringConcertPoster

As befits its origins at Hewlett-Packard, the SBP, now an independent orchestra, calls itself an “Open Source Symphony.” A lot of the publicity is online, but they also print out business cards for members of the group to distribute. When I first saw these, I kind of wondered what to do with them, and in particular it struck me that they had photos of faces on them, not just of composers but of people I knew. “How does it feel to see your face on a card?” I asked. I don’t remember the response, exactly, but it was something like “it was a little weird at first, but I’m getting used to it.”

businesscards

Or maybe I’m projecting, because that describes just how I feel. The original design of the card had my face next to Dvořák’s portrait, but I felt a little uncomfortable with that. Instead I suggested this picture of Yosemite Valley, to represent the “New World” of the symphony. The blue of the sky is nice and color-coordinated with my dress and the orchestra’s logo. My daughter, who is now a freshman in college, took the picture of me with my viola in the backyard while she was home for spring break.

I’ve been giving them out to friends, other musicians I know, members of my writers’ group, people at church, even coworkers. It still feels a little odd to see my face there on a card. Proud? Happy? Sure, but that’s not all. Nervous? Anxious about “putting myself out there?” Yeah, that too. It’s not a bad feeling, but I struggle to find the right words. It is not a feeling I’ve ever had before and not something I expected when I picked up the violin again, and then the viola, more than 10 years ago. A new feeling. A new world.

YosemiteVDC