Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Happy Birthday Dvorak

It's Dvorak's birthday - he would have been 163 today... My article about him for The Indy came out on Monday to trail today's all-Antonin Prom, which included Sarah Chang playing the Violin Concerto with the Czech Phil conducted by Charles Mackerras. The second half was the New World Symphony, which is the basis of my article.

That symphony was in the first concert I ever went to, at the Royal Festival Hall in (I think) 1973. I still remember it. It was the Royal Philharmonic - then a powerhouse presence on the musical scene, not the demoralised, cash-starved basket-case it has become today - with Rudolf Kempe conducting, on a Sunday afternoon so that hard-working fathers like my dad could take their children along at an hour when they wouldn't be missing bedtime (WHY don't we have Sunday afternoon concerts now? As a kid, I'd have never heard any live music without them!). If I've got this right, they started with the Berlioz Carnival Romain overture and then Miriam Fried played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. What I remember most from the Dvorak symphony was a) loving the tunes, b) feeling desperately sorry for the flautist, Susan Milan, who was sitting right in front of the very loud brass and timpani.

30 years on, I've interviewed Susan Milan, and also Miriam Fried's son, Jonathan Biss, a young pianist we'll soon be hearing a lot more about. But today I felt as if I was hearing the New World Symphony for the first time, thanks to Michael Beckerman of NYU, whose superb book New Worlds of Dvorak explores the work's connections to the composer's abortive attempts to write an opera based on Longfellow's 'Hiawatha' (a task later satisfactorily accomplished as a cantata by his young Black British disciple Samuel Coleridge-Taylor). Dvorak, always considered a 'Czech Brahms', says Mike, always wanted to be a 'Slavic Wagner' instead. This book has all the warmth, gentle humour and humanity that is so often missing from musicological tracts, and it made a deep impression when I first perused it when writing liner notes for Philippe's recording of the Violin Concerto, coupled with Coleridge-Taylor's (see link on left).

Now, though, I can really hear it. This symphony is pure symphonic poem. It's all there - the death of Minnehaha, the demoniac dance of the magician Pau-Puk-Keewis, the great famine...and if there should be any doubt as to Dvorak's operatic aspirations, the final chord is straight out of the Ring Cycle, the woodwind sustaining into the beyond after the strings have vanished. Incredible. That b****y bread advert wrecked this work for many years with naff associations; in fact it's one of the late 19th century's finest efforts. It is both sobering and inspiring to return to a work like this and suddenly recognise that you have never appreciated it before.

Bravo Dvorak! And happy birthday.

APOLOGIES MEANWHILE for long blogging silence. I'm trying frantically to juggle family duties with finishing a bunch of articles before going away to France on Friday. GOOD NEWS: my NEW NEPHEW was born on Saturday! He is adorable, and reputedly responds positively to the CD of Nice Soothing Tracks that I put together for his mum, my brother's partner Laura. I'm told it has become the Soothing Feeding CD. It's is full of beautiful slow movements from various concertos, plus a good few chunks of Faure. Luckily enough, it seems to work.