Review: Dvorák’s ‘New World’ and a new piano concerto for our times at the Hollywood Bowl
Before heading up to the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night I dropped into the Ace Hotel downtown. One hundred and five years earlier, John Cage had been born barely more than a mile away, and all the Ace properties around the country celebrated the day by playing Cage’s music continuously for 24 hours in the lobbies.
That proved a relevant reminder, on an evening when the Los Angeles Philharmonic would play Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony and give the West Coast premiere of a new piano concerto by Alan Fletcher, that this summer is also the 90th anniversary of Cage’s first public appearance, which was at the Bowl but has yet to make it into the venue’s official annals as a noteworthy occasion. He represented Los Angeles High School in the Southern California Oratorical Contest (sponsored by The Times, I might add, not that Cage’s victory appears in any of our literature either).
Cage’s subject was the prospect of an impending U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. His diplomatic solution was that “we should be hushed and silent” so that we can learn what other people think. The winning young orator called for a day of listening, rather than reckless provocation and reaction.
What is telling is that nine years ago the “New World” Symphony was tried as a tool of diplomacy in North Korea. In place of reckless provocation and reaction, the New York Philharmonic made a daring, hopeful tour to Pyongyang and brought the symphony with it. The event has been mostly dismissed as a naive gimmick by the orchestra and its then-music director, Lorin Maazel. But the North Koreans did, in fact, stop and listen and show genuine appreciation for our music.
Just as important, New York musicians listened to North Koreans, and particularly to surprisingly accomplished young players, whom they coached. There was talk of further cultural exchanges, but diplomats didn’t pursue the opportunity to more fully understand what we now scratch our heads over, namely what in the world do other people think.
That was Dvorák’s message as well, and Tuesday’s conductor, Ken-David Masur, was well equipped to appreciate it. He is the son of Kurt Masur, who was Maazel’s predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra that commissioned what would be Dvorák’s ninth and last symphony, and which turned out to be at its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1893 both a controversy and revelation.
Dvorák’s intention had been to demonstrate to Americans that our musical identity was to be found in our most original music, that of the Native Americans and African American spirituals, much of which had been generally dismissed as anything from primitive savagery to dangerously subversive by an East Coast music establishment that hadn’t bothered to stop and listen.
The Czech composer had come to America to teach but also to listen, and what he heard astonished and stimulated his imagination. He, of course, appropriated native music refashioning it with European harmonies and in the European symphonic ways he knew. That is what composers who have a voice do. As model for American composers, however, this became something of an obstacle that needed to be overcome if we were to write our own kind of symphonies.
Masur’s approach Tuesday was simply to scrub everything clean. He did not lack warmth, and he had excellent, focused control over the L.A. Phil. But Dvorák’s characterful woodwind solos were tight and inexpressive. The performance had propulsion and direction as if operating with the quiet efficiency of a modern conveyance in futurist city.
It’s understandable. With a new concerto on the bill, Masur couldn’t have had much more rehearsal time than a quick run-through of the symphony, with no opportunity to work on expression. A polished performance under those conditions is impressive.
Then again, making the “New World” too compelling — as David Robertson had done in April with the L.A. Phil — might have seemed an unkind gesture to Fletcher’s Piano Concerto.
Written nearly a century and quarter after the “New World,” this score still reveals remnants of Dvorák’s model, beginning with a narrative structure (as does the “New World,” which has a hidden quasi-narrative based on Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”).
Fletcher’s three movements are titled “Song in Time of War,” “Song Without Words” and “Quodlibet.” Maybe it was the night’s full moon, but what are the odds that this concerto, which not only quotes a spiritual, ends with the obscure Baroque form of a quodlibet? The first Cage piece I happened to hear in the Ace lobby was the last movement from his String Quartet in Four Parts, also labeled “Quodlibet.”
The concerto, written for Inon Barnatan, who was the soloist at the Bowl, had its premiere in July at the Aspen Festival, of which Fletcher is president and chief executive. It sounds like it came from another era, like something a modernist composer portrayed in a 1940s Hollywood film would write.
Oddly enough, especially in a Bowl setting, that proved entertaining. The piano writing has qualities of wrong-note Rachmaninoff. The first movement, which moves from contemplation to anger, comes to a climax with the pianist hitting the keys with his forearms, an old California composer trick. The slow movement’s wordless songs include, in the orchestra, distant echoes of Dvorák’s use of birdsong in the “New World.” The Quodlibet is, as Cage’s was, jazz-inflected..
Masur began the concert with Lili Boulanger’s “D’un Matin de Printemps.” Out of context, this 1918 music for a spring morning might seem like warmed-over Debussy. In the context of having been written the year Boulanger died at 24, you discover a young woman with the promise to become a major composer. How you listen really does matter.
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