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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the January 7, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A New Year, A New Look at Dvorak’s 100 Year

With its January festival approaching, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) stands at an intersection of turning points and long-term vistas. The 2004 festival, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Antonin Dvorak’s death, breaks new ground in extending its reach during the course of its wide-ranging look at music history. The three-week festival runs from this Wednesday, January 7, to Sunday, January 25, in Newark, New Brunswick, Princeton, and Trenton. It includes orchestral concerts with concertos for cello, violin, and piano; chamber music; and choral works, as well as additional events that focus on the Czech composer’s musical output from 1892 to 1895 in America.

Beyond the festival, the orchestra is in a process of transition between the leadership of music director Zdenek Macal, originator of the winter music festivals, and his successor, the distinguished, Estonian-born Neeme Jarvi. In September, as music director emeritus of the NJSO, Macal unexpectedly withdrew as conductor for the Dvorak Festival, a project of major importance to him. A native of Brno, in the Czech Republic, Macal led informed performances of Czech music throughout his nine-year tenure with NJSO.

With rare good fortune, the orchestra was able to engage three master conductors to replace him. Anne Manson, who made her conducting debut with the NJSO in the 2003 American Roots festival, takes command of the Dvorak Festival’s first week. Vassily Sinaisky, a prize-winning conductor, whose career has covered the territory from Moscow to Montreal, makes his debut with the NJSO in week two. And composer-conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a frequent guest at the NJSO, returns for Week Three of the festival.

Neeme Jarvi, who was designated as the NJSO’s next artistic director in October, begins a three-year contract in the 2005-’06 season. Selected after a two-and-a-half year search, he does not participate in the 2004 Winter Festival. His first appearance on the NJSO podium as artistic director is scheduled for April.

Lawrence Tamburri, NJSO president, was involved in planning the festival. However, his tenure at the NJSO is also nearing its end. Tamburri departs to take on the corresponding position with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2003-’04 season. The search for his successor is under way.

During the festival Jonathan Spitz, principal cellist of the NJSO since 1990, solos in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor in the first week. Gil Shaham performs in the Violin Concerto in A minor in the second week. And Tzimon Barto is soloist in the Piano Concerto in G minor during the final week.

Spitz performs on the 1696 “ex. Prince Gursky” Stradivarius cello, one of NJSO’s Golden Age Collection of 30 string instruments that the orchestra acquired from Herbert and Evelyn Axelrod in 2003. The Axelrod instruments make the NJSO the holder of the largest number of rare Italian instruments in the world. The effect of their presence in the orchestra is not yet fully understood. Their use in the January festival continues the exploration of their impact on the sound of the orchestra.

Joseph Horowitz, a humanities scholar and NJSO festival consultant, has assembled a formidable battery of ancillary events and novel supporting materials to make Dvorak’s stay in America come to life. (For a complete schedule of NJSO’s state-wide festival program go to the website at: www.njsymphony.org.) Discussions have been planned to emphasize Dvorak’s role in American musical life as well as the influence of America on his music. A Newark Museum exhibition ties American landscape painting to the America that Dvorak knew; Tim Barringer, associate professor of art history at Yale, and a French hornist who has performed Dvorak, presents the connection between the visual and the auditory as part of the festival. Michael Beckerman, a leading Dvorak scholar, also participates.

A half-dozen American orchestras planning future Dvorak festivals intend to use a DVD and a book about Dvorak written by festival consultant Horowitz. The materials are being employed for the first time at the NJSO Festival. The cutting-edge DVD treats the America Dvorak knew as well as his music. Almost ready for publication at festival time, it will be released commercially shortly after the festival ends. Its creators are Robert Winter, professor of music at UCLA, and his cyber-sidekick Peter Bogdanoff.

For young people, Horowitz’s slightly fictionalized biography of the composer is put out by Cricket Press, a leading publisher of children’s books and magazines. It will be used in the three New Jersey schools participating in the festival’s outreach program, as well as in Dvorak festivals elsewhere in the U.S.

Born in 1841 in Bohemia, Dvorak was one of Europe’s most admired composers by the time he reached 50. He was appointed Professor of Composition at the Prague Conservatory in 1891. Although he did not know it at the time, his credentials made him a leading candidate for a major enterprise of Jeanette M. Thurber, a New York music patron.

Thurber, the wife of a wealthy New York grocery wholesaler, founded the National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1885. At the time, leading American musicians tended to look to Europe for their training and their musical models. For the most part, American music was German music. The music of native Americans and of black Americans was seen primarily as the product of inferior primitive peoples, and not worth the attention of serious musicians.

Thurber opposed the prevalent prejudice and established her school to encourage indigenous American musical compositions. Talented students below the age of 24 would be accepted regardless of their race and most would pay no tuition. To give cachet to the Conservatory Thurber hoped to import a leading European musician as its head. She knew, says Horowitz, “that Dvorak was an instinctive democrat, a butcher’s son [and] a cultural nationalist.” Fascinated by native Americans, he had already read Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” in Czech. Thurber lured him to America by offering him the salary of $15,000, a royal stipend at the time.

Once in America Dvorak heard African-American music for the first time. Deeply moved, he declared that “Go Down Moses” was as great as Beethoven, and that other “plantation songs,” as spirituals were then known, were the foundation of future American music. Active in American musical circles as head of the National Conservatory, he inspired American composers to look to their native roots for musical material.

Dvorak’s family resided in New York from 1892 to 1895, and traveled elsewhere during the summers. They visited the Chicago Columbian Exposition, celebrating Columbus’ discovery of America 400 years earlier, which included zoo-like displays of native peoples from the entire world. And they visited Spillville, Iowa, with its large Czech population. His travels convinced Dvorak of the musical viability of native American and black American music.

So imbued was Dvorak with indigenous American musical idioms, that he wrote into his “New World” Symphony a tune that has come to be accepted as an American spiritual. “Going Home,” as the mournful opening of the second movement of the piece has become known, has now taken its place alongside “Deep River” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

American elements are not necessarily clearly identifiable in Dvorak’s other American compositions. Yet, his American output was a high point in his career. Some of his most celebrated works were written in America.

Dvorak left himself open, not only to indigenous American music, but to American music with European links. He was so impressed with American Victor Herbert’s ability to make the cello ring out against an orchestral background, rather than being submerged by it, that he modeled his B-minor cello concerto on the cello concerto of Herbert.

“What’s American about the Dvorak cello concerto?” I ask NJSO soloist Jonathan Spitz in a telephone interview at 10 in the evening. Despite his heavy performance load and his commitments to students at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he teaches, Spitz kindly agreed to talk after a full day of teaching. His claim that his brain is mushy turns out not to be true.

“The cello concerto was written in America,” Spitz says. “It was the last major piece Dvorak wrote when he was teaching in New York. “It’s not as explicitly American as the ‘New World Symphony’ or the ‘American String Quartet, though there are some American hymn elements in the second theme of the first movement.”

“Although it was written in America, it sounds more Czech than American. Dvorak was probably getting homesick. Czech music is uniquely able to convey a sense of nature. The woodwind interactions with the cello in the concerto make me imagine myself in a Czech forest. They remind me of Dvorak’s ‘In Nature’s Realm,’ which we recorded on DVD last year.”

The chief challenge of the concerto for the soloist, Spitz says, is communicating its musical glories without revealing its technical problems. “The concerto is filled with a succession of technically difficult gestures from beginning to end. But that’s just the start of it. It’s not really a show piece. The real difficulty is conveying the character of the piece. It’s the opposite of the Tchaikovsky ‘Rococo Variations,’ which is an out-and-out virtuoso piece. When I play the concerto I don’t want the audience thinking, ‘Boy that piece must be really difficult.’”

Spitz considers the Dvorak Festival more than a mere commemorative gesture. “It’s particularly timely because this is the centenary of Dvorak’s death. But there’s more to it. Personally, I feel that there’s a breadth to Dvorak’s musical output that’s underappreciated. We get to explore that breadth in this festival.”

For the festival Spitz uses the only Stradivarius cello in the $18 million Golden Age collection of instruments. He is enthusiastic about the orchestra’s acquisition. “The impact of the Golden Age instruments on the orchestra is astounding,” he says. “Our string section immediately improved. As we get more and more comfortable with the instruments, that improvement keeps going on. There’s no limit to what we can do with these instruments.”

Spitz is philosophical about Macal’s withdrawal from the festival. “I’m very disappointed,” he says, “because he’s a great interpreter of Dvorak. For the last 10 years we’ve played Dvorak only with Macal. But playing the Dvorak pieces under different conductors will bring out their freshness. We have very highly regarded conductors for the festival.”

Spitz was not on hand for the one concert that future artistic director Neeme Jarvi conducted with the NJSO last spring. “I didn’t play the concert with Jarvi,” Spitz says. “But I played with him as a substitute in the New York Philharmonic. What makes him outstanding is his complete technical control and his comfort in the gestures he makes to the orchestra. He’s a conductor who doesn’t need to say very much in rehearsal because he shows what he wants so well with his body.”

— Elaine Strauss

The Dvorak Centenary: Inspiring America, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, 800-ALLEGRO. Website: www.njsymphony.org. Tickets $17 to $69.

Inspiring America, NJSO, State Theater, New Brunswick. The NJSO Winter Festival 2004 begins with a program featuring Dvorak’s “American Concerto,” with Anne Manson, conductor, and Jonathan Spitz, cello. Also Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. Thursday, January 8, 8 p.m.

Inspiring America, NJSO, War Memorial, Trenton. Saturday, January 10, 8 p.m.

Eroica Trio, NJSO, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton. The Eroica Trio presents an evening of chamber music including a Dvorak piano trio. (This concert performed without the orchestra.) $25. Friday, January 16, 8 p.m.

The Bohemian Dvorak, NJSO, State Theater, New Brunswick. “The Bohemian Dvorak” features the Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 8. Gil Shaham, violin, with guest conductor, the Russian Vassily Sinaisky. Sunday, January 18, 3 p.m.

From the New World, NJSO, War Memorial, Trenton. Dvorak’s “From the New World” Symphony, led by conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, with Tzimon Barto, piano. Friday, January 23, 8 p.m.


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