In Words and Music, A Portrait of Dvorak

By Andrew Lindemann Malone
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 4, 2007

Although classical pundits do not typically rank Antonin Dvorak among the truly great composers, he made an intriguing subject for the fifth installment of Martin Goldsmith's "Classical Portraits" series, presented last night with Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall.

Goldsmith, a local actor and the director of classical programming at XM Satellite Radio, adeptly selected biographical details to show the composer's down-to-earth nature -- his fascination with trains, his pigeon-keeping and his twin enthusiasms for beer and cards. (All these were reflected in pictures shown on a large screen above the stage, as edited by Yvonne Caruthers.) Goldsmith effectively mixed humor with pathos, and though he focused a bit too directly on the life -- one wished for more about the implications of Dvorak's Czech nationalism, for example -- his calmly magnetic voice and skillful writing made the story he told quite involving.

While Dvorak was mostly spared the turbulence and anguish that characterized the lives of many of the titans of classical music, he did endure personal tragedy -- the early deaths of his first three children -- and was a leader in the rise of both Czech and Slav nationalism. He also was at the center of America's early attempts to form its own classical music when he led the National Conservatory in New York from 1892 to 1895, and made the prescient proclamation: "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music." (It just happened that great and noble school of music turned out to be jazz rather than classical.) Even the most humdrum life turns lively when graced with excerpts from Dvorak's works, which contain a suspiciously high proportion of irresistible tunes for a non-great composer.

Except for a couple of sloppy entrances, Slatkin and the NSO provided admirable support, often making their short extracts exciting indeed; a few bars from the Sixth Symphony were so dynamic as to prompt spontaneous applause. The chamber works with the NSO principals fared worse, as it is tough to balance the sound of a small ensemble when the players sit six feet or more apart from each other.

Celebrating the life of a great Slavic composer after Mstislav Rostropovich so recently left the stage felt poignant. As a small tribute, a few minutes of Rostropovich's definitive recording of the Cello Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan was subbed for the live musicians. In addition, after intermission, Slatkin conducted Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, the last work in which Slava conducted the NSO, as Slatkin told the audience in a short speech describing the symphony.

Slatkin's reading occasionally became a little stiff, as the NSO barreled through a series of chords that could have been more expressive with a little more freedom in phrasing. On the other hand, he and the orchestra handled rhythmically complex passages with great dexterity, nailing the shifting Czech "furiant" rhythms he had so adeptly elucidated earlier. The sheer ardor of Slatkin's reading, though, ultimately did bring Rostropovich to mind, especially in the Finale, where beautifully shaped, intensely expressive string playing alternated with rowdy, boisterous joy, driven by whooping brass and an emphatic downbeat.

The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow at 7.

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