Dvorak and America - Hiawatha Melodrama

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The Horowitz here is Joseph, the critic and music historian, not Vladimir, aided and abetted by noted Dvorák scholar Michael Beckerman of NYU, whose work has contributed so much to a deeper understanding of the Czech composer’s American years. It’s important to remember that when Dvorák first suggested that American artists look to African American and Native American music for inspiration, many of the White Folks, represented by the members of the Boston School, were appalled. Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony was composed as a refutation of Dvorák’s “From the New World”, and we all know how well that turned out. At the same time, the Czechs were emphasizing how much the American works remained “Czech” in their inspiration, despite their special melodic character. This project aims to redress the balance, and it succeeds admirably.

We know that Dvorák contemplated setting Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, and that some of the music inspired by the poem found its way into the Ninth Symphony. What Horowitz and Beckerman have done is to take scenes from the poem and arrange them as melodrama (spoken text over musical accompaniment) to works of Dvorák’s American period, “From the New World” included. Conductor Angel Gil-Ordoñez has provided arrangements from some other, non-orchestral works, including the Violin Sonatina. Rounding out the picture, two of the most “American”-sounding Humoresques, plus the American Suite, all for solo piano, are affectingly played by Benjamin Pasternack.

Finally, we get a substantial bonus in the form of the faux spiritual “Goin’ Home”, arranged from the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony, plus Native American-inspired music by Arthur Farwell: his exciting Navajo War Dance No. 2, and two versions of Pawnee Horses, one for piano and one for choir. In the Hiawatha Melodrama, Kevin Deas intones the (corny, to modern ears) text with impressive authority, and sings Goin’ Home beautifully. It would be idle to pretend that the orchestral performances are anything other than adequate, but as music to accompany the poem, they do just fine.

This is one of those rare “concept albums” where the concept actually works. It offers a truly fresh and interesting perspective on Dvorák’s American period, while still assembling a program that makes for enjoyable listening on its own. Few of us bother to read Longfellow’s poem anymore, but hearing it wedded to Dvorák’s music really does create a powerful and, somehow, nostalgic atmosphere of perhaps a more innocent age. I found it quite moving, and the rest of the performances very enjoyable. You will too.

– David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

Product Description:

  • Release Date: June 10, 2014

  • Catalog Number: 8559777

  • UPC: 636943977729

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Antonín Dvořák, Arthur Farwell, Michael Beckerman, William Arms Fisher

  • Conductor: Angel Gil-Ordóñez, James Morrow

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Post-Classical Ensemble, University of Texas Chamber Singers

  • Performer: Benjamin Pasternack, Edmund Battersby, Kevin Deas, Michael Worfe, Qian Zhou