The Old World Meets the New
By Marc Shulgold
Classical concerts can now embrace the world, happily crossing over geographic and cultural boundaries with ease, serving up the familiar alongside the daringly new. Just check out this week's concerts by the Colorado Symphony in Boettcher Concert Hall, to see how different musical styles and generations can co-exist with exciting results.
It's appropriate that the Friday and Saturday events are led by Andre de Ridder (left), an adventurous German-born conductor who spends most of his professional life in Great Britain, and who has embraced new music with gusto. He's collaborated on a Deutsche Grammophon recording with the talented young American composer Bryce Dessner (whose Résponse Lutoslawski, a tribute to the great Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, will open the program).
Both conductor and composer are well-versed in musical fields away from the concert hall. De Ridder contributed to a release by the super-popular British virtual rock band, Gorillaz. And Dessner's work on the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning film The Revenant earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Adding to the cross-over tone of the Colorado Symphony program, De Ridder will lead works by two composers from Eastern Europe who crossed over to the United States.
Born in Hungary, Béla Bartók spent his final years in New York City, where he became a folklore researcher at Columbia University and received a commission to write his final masterpiece, the Concerto for Orchestra. Back in 1938, two years before heading here to escape the rising threat of war, Bartók composed his second Violin Concerto, a brilliant work of dramatic shifts, unexpected lyrical episodes and unstoppable rhythmic energy. Handling the challenging solo part will be the orchestra's superb concertmaster, Yumi Hwang-Williams. Incidentally, Hwang-Williams is currently collaborating on a new Violin Concerto with Boulder-based composer Daniel Kellogg, to be premiered with the Colorado Symphony next season.
Linking our theme of the Old World vs. the New, the program ends with Dvořák's Symphony No. 9. This beloved work was completed in the spring of 1893 and premiered that December, concluding his first full year directing the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Most of us know this piece as the “New World” Symphony — but Dvořák's actual title was “From the New World.” This description suggests that the music was a sort of musical postcard. Indeed, the composer described the Symphony as “impressions and greetings from the New World.” Its folk-like flavor, along with the charming chamber works penned in this country, created the Great Dvořák Question: Did his music contain actual “American” tunes, or were those melodies original, merely reflections of what the composer encountered in the U.S.?
We know he heard a lot of folk music over here. He'd paid close attention to the African-American spirituals sung for him by Harry Burleigh, a student at the National Conservatory. And he was impressed by the music of the Oglala Sioux, heard at Buffalo Bill's “Wild West” show in New York. The composer sat front and center when an Iroquois contingent performed with the Kickapoo Medicine Company during his summer vacation in Spillville, Iowa. He soaked everything up, just as he did back in Bohemia. Forget all the debating and arguing — the tunes in the “New World” Symphony belong to Dvořák. Every unforgettable, achingly beautiful melody.