BWW Reviews: Baltimore Symphony's 'Off the Cuff': Dvorak's New World Symphony
What an evening it was with Maestra Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony's rendition of Dvorak's popular New World Symphony, his 9th, as part of her "Off the Cuff" series. What is "Off the Cuff". Four times a season, the BSO starts one hour early, at 7 p.m. (to allow dinner after the concert). Prior to the performance of one piece of music in its entirety, Alsop takes a microphone and addresses the audience about the music with hints of coming attractions, using the BSO's musicians to give a sneek peak of what's to come and explaining what a composer has in mind. It is thoroughly enjoyable.
Accompanying the BSO was the incredible Morgan State University Choir under Dr. Eric Conway, Director.
Part of the beauty of the work's second movement, "Largo" is a goreous theme played by Jane Marvine on the English Horn. Alsop mentioned it's beauty and simplicity celebrated an American tradition. The theme later became the spiritual "Goin' Home". The Choir sang beautifully. Prior to this, they sang the American Spiritual "Steal Away". Both received great ovations. One problem I noticed was the Choir's conductor was placed in the rear of the orchestra and deserved a spot light.
Alsop mentioned that Dvorak was one of six children with a modest background. He was born in Prague in 1841. His father was a butcher, innkeeper and played the zither. At the age of thirteen, he was sent to live with a music teacher and learned the organ and viola. At the age of 30, he was conducting the Bohemia Theatre Orchestra playing a lot of Wagner. He was always composing and he entered a competition with 15 works he submitted which included two symphonies, an overture, and song cycles. He won first prize and Brahms became his biggest fan. He shared a love of folk music with Brahms. Dvorak's works have included folk dances that were Czech, Polish, Moravian, and Slavonic.
Before Dvorak published his 9th Symphony, he had Brahms proof read it. He had success in London and Russia. He refused to Germanize his name and was shunned by the Vienna Philharmonic. Alsop then mentioned, this orchestra todau is still not that tolerant since they only have five females.
Dvorak came to America at the invitation of Jeanette Thurber to head a music conservatory in New York which later became the Julliard School. She wanted a conservatory for everyone. Alsop discussed how she envisioned Dvorak on the ship to America when the French Horns were playing.
It was interesting to learn that the tuba only has 12 notes to play in the piece during the "Largo" section.
During the third movement, Alsop mentioned the music was like an Indian dance. It also is the only part of the work that uses a triangle.
The final movement "Allegro con fuoco" sums up the entire piece with a lot of drama accoring to Alsop. She then mentioned that composer John Williams may have taken his opening them of "Jaws" from that movement.
The New York Philharmonic commissioned the work and it was first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1893. Alsop stated that the audience loved it so much, they applauded after every movement. She then added, "We're not opposed to that at all." And the Baltimore audience complied.
After her talk, it was time for the entire work and she used no music. It was magical. Then Conductor Conway took to Alsop's podium to conduct "Elijah Rock".
After the concert, the audience was invited to stay for a Q and A. She was asked about the BSO's use of risers. She mentioned it was the first time in a long time. The reason was to allow the audience to see more of the orchestra. She added the musicians on the risers her the music better.
She mentioned that the composer stayed in America for only a year. At the request of an audience member she spent time talking about the English Horn.
The BSO has recorded Dvorak's 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Symphonies and wants to do more. Alsop was asked since she was the Music Director in San Paolo Brazil, can we expect Brazilian music in the future. At the behest of the audience, she agreed.
When asked if the "Off the Cuff" series was more work for her, she agreed that it is. "It requires more work, more research. Playing the music is a relief." She added though she enjoys it a lot and said that audiences listen differently.
I noticed a lot of microphones above the stage. Alsop when asked about these stated their intent is to make these concerts available maybe via video streaming.
I asked Alsop if she was aware that the National Symphony would be playing the same piece at the Kennedy Center January 23 and 25 and on the 24th would be doing a program similar to the "Off the Cuff" series called "Beyond the Score". She was unaware of this but added "It's nice to see we're being imitated."