Where would American music be without — of all people — Antonin Dvorak? The Czech composer spent only three brief years here, but after arriving in New York in 1892 he threw himself into the indigenous (and largely ignored) music he found, incorporating everything from African-American spirituals to Native American dances into his own music. By the time he returned to Europe, Dvorak had written a string of iconic works, from the “New World” symphony to the American String Quartet — and carved out a new and profoundly “American” musical language that changed the musical landscape of the time.
That unlikely episode in music history has been the subject of “Dvorak and America,” a multi-event festival mounted last week by the PostClassical Ensemble. The group has made a specialty of presenting neglected music in fresh contexts and striking new presentations, and the festival’s closing concert — presented Friday in the University of Maryland’s Dekelboum Concert Hall — stayed true to form, probing the nature of Dvorak’s “Americanism” and unveiling a new work that partly fulfilled an unfinished ambition of Dvorak himself.
The evening started with the “Serenade for Strings” from 1875. Written years before Dvorak came to America, it’s an elegant, lovely work awash in Czech folk melodies, and it’s refined enough for even the most delicate European ears. But when the ensemble then turned to the 1895 “American Suite,” it wasn’t as if a breath of fresh of air had swept into the hall — it was more like a bracing gale. Exuberant, unfettered, almost cinematic in its rich colors and heady sweep of ideas, the work seemed to explode with vitality and a sense of freedom and infinite possibility. Much of that was due to superb playing by the ensemble itself — led with fluidity and precision by music director Angel Gil-Ordonez — but the music itself proved that Dvorak was no mere borrower of indigenous melodies: He had grasped the frontier mentality of America itself.
The real focus of the evening, though, was the premiere of a bold new work called “Hiawatha Melodrama,” put together by music historian Michael Beckerman and PostClassical artistic director Joseph Horowitz. Combining music from the “New World” symphony, the “American Suite” and the Violin Sonatina with a truncated version of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” it suggests what Dvorak might have written if he’d completed a planned vocal work based on the epic poem. The work had its moments: musically seamless, it built to a stirring climax and showcased Dvorak’s extraordinary gift for tone-painting. But Longfellow’s poem — a best-seller in its day — has not, in all honesty, aged very well. Bass-baritone Kevin Deas did what he could with its relentless trochees and the begging-for-parody, Gitche Gumee lingo. But by the end, it was hard not to think that Dvorak’s music stood better on its own.
Brookes is a freelance writer.