"Melody flowed from Dvorák like cider from a jug," observed the great sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken. All seasoned concertgoers have basked in the melodic beauty of the Czech composer's "New World" Symphony, Slavonic Dances, Carnival Overture, and the most beloved of all cello concertos.
Still, many audience members at this season's edition of the National Symphony Orchestra's popular Composer Portrait series are bound to be surprised at just how vast and engaging Dvorák's catalog is.
The annual Composer Portrait concerts are the invention of NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin. "The idea was to give people information about the major composers and to do it in a way that was thoughtful and informative and entertaining," says the conductor. "But not as a children's concert. Rather, it's something for families to share and for adults who have some background in music to get a further appreciation of the composer's life and how it relates to his or her music."
To this end Maestro Slatkin enlisted Martin Goldsmith, director of classical music programming at XM Radio and author of The Inextinguishable Symphony, to help develop the concept, write the text, and serve as co-host.
Earlier Composer Portraits have been devoted to Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. There are three parts to each program. In the first hour, Goldsmith gives an illustrated talk about the biography of the composer, punctuated by live excerpts of music performed by the Orchestra that relate chronologically to major life events. In the second part, Slatkin, who is a virtuoso communicator off the podium as well as on, briefly analyzes the major work of the evening and then leads a complete performance. The evening concludes with an open discussion with the co-hosts and guests, called AfterWords.
For the Dvorák Composer Portrait, that major work is the Eighth Symphony. The maestro's voice warms palpably when talking about the piece. "It's Dvorák at the happiest period in his life and at the highest point of his powers. I used to associate this piece with conductor Bruno Walter. But after growing up with it, I studied it with a Czech conductor, Walter Susskind. He gave me a very different perspective, not just on this piece but on a great deal of Dvorák. He talked a lot about the lightness of the character. Not so much about the folk element but the dance element which comes into play in virtually all the symphonies, even the somber ones. He said that you couldn't approach them like you do a Brahms symphony, but very much as a part of the dance folklore heritage that was Dvorák's culture.
"He also taught me some wonderful things about how to alter the repeats in each of the variations at the end. He said it's nice, when the cellos and the basses have the theme at the end, to let the cellos sing one time and then in the repeat let the basses come out a little more — just for colors. Susskind became my main influence in this composer and in general in this kind of music. It remains a wonderful showpiece for an orchestra to play. I don't know one orchestra that doesn't like to play it. You always see people smiling when they're performing this piece."
Goldsmith's longstanding passion for Czech music was heightened by standing on the very soil on which Dvorák composed. "So many great composers — the Bendas, the Mysliveceks, the Stamitzs, Vorìsek, Dussek — made their way from Bohemia and Moravia to Vienna and influenced the incredible musicality of that city for so long," Goldsmith says. "And that certainly led to my love of the great 19th-century composers Smetana and then Dvorák. A couple of trips to Prague deepened my appreciation, as well as a trip to Zlonice, which is the little town about 40 miles west of Prague where Dvorák was apprenticed to a butcher and where he first began to play the organ at the local church and to develop his skills as a composer. So personally looking at the church in Zlonice, which gave rise to the subtitle in Dvorák's First Symphony, The Bells of Zlonice, was exciting. And visiting the Dvorák sites in Prague and going down to the Vysehrad cemetery where Dvorák is buried also contributed to my love of his marvelous music."
A second Dvorák pilgrimage took Goldsmith to Spillville, Iowa, in 1993, for the town's 100th-anniversary celebration of the composer's famous visit. Dvorák had come to New York City at the end of 1892 to become head of the National Conservatory of Music but was overcome with homesickness. One of his students there was from Spillville, a Czech community, and arranged an invitation for Dvorák to spend the summer there.
"So," relates Goldsmith, "I spent some time on the banks of the Little Turkey River, where there's a little monument to Dvorák, and I heard the sound of the scarlet tanager, which is the birdsong that Dvorák quotes in the second movement of his American Quartet. There's a real sense of the American prairie in that quartet. In the String Quintet, Op. 97, which Dvorák wrote in that same summer of 1893, there are melodies not only from nature but from the Kickapoo Indians whom Dvorák met while he was there. To quote a series of overtures that Dvorák wrote, there is suffused in his music nature, life, and love in virtually everything he wrote."
"I'm very fond of the Composer Portrait series," says Slatkin. "A lot of people return and sit in the same seats, and we get to know them pretty well. At the AfterWords for the very first Portrait, I asked how many people had never been to a National Symphony concert before. One couple raised their hands, so I asked, 'What did you think?' They said, 'We really enjoyed this,' and I asked, 'Would you come back again?' 'Yes.' Well, next year in the AfterWords somebody raised their hands and said, 'You probably don't remember us, but we were here last year at the Composer Portrait and we later got married.' They had been here before on a date and said they would forever associate their marriage with that concert."
Sedgwick Clark is editor of the Musical America International Directory of the Performing Arts.