in: Reviews

October 15, 2012

History and Song at the Gardner


Michael Barrett and Stepen Blier (file photo)

The New York Festival of Song returned to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall on Sunday, for an exploration of “Dvořák and the American Soul.” Three singers and a pianist presented a selection of songs chosen to demonstrate the influence of Dvořák’s American sojourn of 1892-3 on his music and on American music.

As Susan Miron noted in her BMInt review of last February’s New York Festival of Song performance at the Gardner, these events are not traditional classical music concerts. Featuring several art-songs by a well-known classical music composer, yesterday’s gathering also included narration and aimed to present a more explicit narrative than a traditional classical music concert. This concert paired compositions by Antonin Dvořák with works by Harry T. Burleigh, Will Marion Cook, and Alex Rogers — American composers and musicians acquainted with and influenced by Dvořák during his time at Jeannette Thurber’s National Conservatory of Music in New York City (sadly now defunct) to present an episode in American music history.

Today’s festival featured Michael Barrett on piano and as emcee introducing the acts. Barrett is Associate Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song (now celebrating its 25th– anniversary season). He is also a highly-accomplished pianist and attentive collaborator. He produced a wide range of dynamics and a variety of touch and articulation in support of the music programmed. For most of the Dvořák songs in Czech (including an archaic dialect in two of the Moravian Duets) we heard the round, full voice of Dina Kuznetsova, soprano. Ms. Kuznetsova gave a dramatic presentation of the songs and artfully mastered the challenges of singing in Czech (a language seemingly rich in consonants, often appearing in combinations awkward to articulate while singing). She emoted with feeling in all of her appearances. For the American songs, we heard from Julia Bullock, soprano, who is blessed with a velvety soft richness of voice, as well as being a dramatic and talented singer. The final artist to appear was James Martin, baritone, who sang with solid support and a sweet voice which had the virtue of seeming natural and wholly unaffected. (It is a true testament to artifice, high mastery of artistic training, that it effaces itself and seems natural.)

The music began with Ms. Kuznetsova and Mr. Barrett in one of Dvořák’s “Love Songs,” op. 83 and two of his “In Folk Style” songs op. 73. The second act of this drama consisted of a pair of songs: Harry T. Burleigh (described as Dvořák’s “teacher’s pet” and also muse), “A Birthday Song,” sung by Julia Bullock, along with another of Dvořák’s songs from “In Folk Style,” again sung by Ms. Kuznetsova. This pairing showed the great musical affinity between the two men and the two songs. The third act presented three songs from In Dahomey (a revue or variety show with a changing selection of songs, many by Will Marion Cook, and all exploring aspects of African-American culture as performed by African-American artists). James Martin sang Cook’s “Brown Skin Baby Mine,” a love song; Julia Bullock sang Alex Rogers’ “I’m a Jonah Man,” narrating a life of hard luck. The pair joined forces for Cook’s “Good Evenin’,” which combines a tale of love and of woe. In this third act we got a sense of American vernacular music culture in the 1890s, and an idea of the musical culture Dvořák would have encountered, and embraced, when arriving on these shores. The fourth act alternated traditional spirituals as arranged and notated by Harry T. Burleigh, sung by Ms. Bullock and Mr. Martin, with Dvořák’s “Biblical Songs” (settings of Psalms sung in Czech in the Kralice Bible translation), sung by Ms. Kuznetsova. The fifth and final act presented two of Dvořák’s “Moravian Duets,” op. 32, embracing the theme of homecoming to the Danube, with Dvořák/Fisher “Goin’ Home” (words set in the 1920s to the theme from the slow movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony), with the text embracing the spiritual homecoming to heaven. In this fifth act, all three singers joined in for the Czech language songs of Dvořák’s “Moravian Duets” (which called in part for three voices, despite being a duet).

This thematic program offered by the New York Festival of Song sought to demonstrate Dvořák’s embrace of African-American music and how it influenced his musical compositions at the same time as his classicizing influence on American, specifically African-American, musicians and composers. The encore, Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” brought home this point: Ellington was taught by Will Marion Cook, a student of Dvořák during his American years. While NYFOS artistic director Steven Blier’s extensive, and highly informative, essay stops short of claiming Dvořák as a grandfather of American jazz, Michael Barrett rather overstated his, and Blier’s, case from the stage and did make impossible claims for Dvořák. Pity; the thesis is a good and defensible one without the distractions of hyperbole or problematic overstatement. It is true that Dvořák’s embrace of African-American music as truly American music was a radical stance and cost him the friendship and support of leading music figures of the time. It is not true that jazz would not have developed without Dvořák’s mediating influence. Perhaps, and only remotely perhaps, might Duke Ellington not have been the innovative composer and musician he was if Jeannette Thurber had not brought Dvořák to the United States?

Soprano Dina Kuznetsova (Dario Acostaw photo)

The thesis regarding the cross-fertilization of music in the twentieth-century will be familiar to readers of Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise. New York Festival of Song gave us a sharp focus on one composer and his influence, jumping from Western classical to American vernacular (Broadway, jazz, spiritual) while Ross focused more broadly on European classical music for another couple generations before considering the popular and vernacular influences connections between classical and rock music. To my mind, this New York Festival of Song show is timely: I pondered the Romantic and nineteenth-century embrace of folksong for some time now (and have mentioned this in conjunction with previous reviews in the Intelligencer).

Finally, a note to the Gardner. Michael Barrett expressed growing irritation with the applause coming after each song, and asked repeatedly that it be held until the ends of segments. In this review I have structured the concert into five acts; had the program presented the songs more clearly in this way, or even as a series of sets, audiences would have better understood the format and might perhaps have more readily honored the performers’ wishes.

I would be remiss if I left readers with the idea this was only a didactic experience. True, there was a pedagogical component, but the music was expertly performed and brought a lot of delight and pleasure to those of us in the audience. It was more exciting to hear Czech songs which are not often performed here (finding a singer adept in the language might have something to do with that), along with the works of under-appreciated African-American composers. I enjoyed the concert — and not just for my own love of learning.

Technical note: I have not provided Czech titles for Dvořák’s compositions. I regret the omission but must bow to temporal expediency and the restrictions of technology: I cannot find the diacriticals required for all the song titles sung today. Finding the háček for the composer’s name was challenge enough! I crave the indulgence of all Czech readers for my shortcomings.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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