Review: Dvorak outshines Copland, Gershwin
July 6, 2010
ASPEN – Ah, a Fourth of July concert on Sunday afternoon featuring the Aspen Festival Orchestra, a nice way to ease into the music festival, having just arrived in town Sunday morning. Murry Sidlin, a 32-year festival veteran, associate director of the conducting academy, was on the podium for a traditional all-American program for Independence Day-Copland, Gershwin and, what’s this? Dvorak?
As Sidlin, a born teacher, pointed out in his pre-performance talk, there was good reason to include Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” on a program celebrating America. When the Czech composer wrote it in 1893 he was living in the United States. It teems with musical impressions of his surroundings. Sidlin even found connections with the rhythms of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” which Dvorak was known to be reading prior to composing the symphony.
In performance Sunday, Dvorak took the spotlight from the real Americans. Sidlin, though a longtime champion of American music, got much more depth and assurance from the Aspen Festival Orchestra in the New World symphony that he did in the featured solo work, Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. The opening work, Copland’s “El Salon Mexico,” was better, but even its Latin flair paled next to the glow that came from the Dvorak.
Attention to detail and a rich, warm string tone gave the performance of the symphony its power. Sidlin set an unhurried pace, which let the gorgeous harmonies and melodies bloom naturally. The slow movement was especially fine, with sensitive pianissimo ensemble playing and its famous English horn solo emerging with disarming simplicity.
The shining moment in the concerto came with Kevin Cobb’s supremely bluesy solo in the slow movement. Overall, however, the piece suffered from some ragged playing; for example, it took the string section three iterations before it finally got the rhythm together at the beginning of the finale. Sidlin also seemed totally absorbed in the printed score, suggesting that this performance could have used a bit more preparation. A curious approach to rhythmic emphasis by the soloist, Jeffrey Siegel, didn’t help much. He stressed odd notes that Gershwin wrote as counterpoint to the tunes, which had the effect of underlining dissonances rather than framing the tunes. Perhaps he wanted to cut the sweetness, but the result struck me as off-kilter. It’s a measure of how good the piece is that it got a standing ovation anyway.
Sidlin actually spent some time with an aging Copland, who died in 1990, and perhaps his direct connection with the composer invested the performance of “El Salon” with more clarity than the Gershwin got. Even so, the music never quite took off. Sidlin clearly knew what he wanted, but the orchestra responded only sporadically.
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Leave it to Dvorak, the musical tourist, to save the day.