On Friday, March 10, the Harriman-Jewell Series will present the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The orchestra will perform an overture by Giuseppe Verdi and the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” by Antonin Dvorak.
Acclaimed Ukrainian pianist Alexei Grynyuk will join the orchestra for Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Verdi’s overture to “La forza del destino” will provide a dramatic curtain-raiser.
The opera, based on a scene by Friedrich Schiller, has a rather unlucky reputation. In 1960, during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, the great baritone Leonard Warren had just sung the aria “to die, a momentous thing,” and then suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died on stage.
Luciano Pavarotti never sang the opera, fearing the curse of “La Forza,” and Franco Corelli always performed small rituals to counter any ill omens when performing the work.
There’s nothing unlucky about the overture, however. Even if one is unfamiliar with the plot of “La Forza,” the overture is a powerful stand-alone piece.
Although Prokofiev was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, he first made his mark as a dazzling pianist. He toured the world performing his own and others music, and even gave a recital in Kansas City in 1926. His Piano Concerto No. 3 began as a theme and variations, which Prokofiev sketched out in 1913. He eventually turned these sketches into a full-blown concerto, which he performed at its premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1921.
It didn’t take long for the Piano Concerto No. 3 to be recognized as a work of unparalleled genius. Spiky and dissonant at times, it also exudes good humor and pure vitality. In the 1980 film “The Competition,” starring Richard Dreyfus and Amy Irving, the concerto figured prominently and introduced the work to a wider audience. It’s now a favorite finger-busting showstopper.
Anytime classical fans are polled about their favorite works, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” is always near the top of the list. With gorgeous themes that sound both Bohemian and American, the Symphony No. 9 captures the best of the old and the new world. And this beloved classical masterpiece received its finishing touches in a small town 400 miles north of Kansas City.
Dvorak was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City from 1892 to 1895. Being a country boy at heart, Dvorak decided to spend the very hot summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa, which had a large community of Czech immigrants.
It was on the plains of the Midwest that Dvorak came into contact with Native American music and African-American spirituals. Dvorak absorbed this authentic American folk music and incorporated it into his “New World” symphony, which was first performed by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall on Dec. 16, 1893.
Dvorak doesn’t quote any specific piece of American music in his symphony, but the work is suffused with the sound of America. Dvorak said that he wanted the second movement, the scherzo, to be a sketch for the feasting scene in “The Song of Hiawatha,” a cantata the composer planned to write but never finished.
“I have not actually used any of the (Native American) melodies,” Dvorak wrote at the time. “I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.”
The fourth movement, the famous adagio, has the plaintive quality of many African-American spirituals. In fact, William Arms Fisher, Dvorak’s student, used the adagio theme as the basis for his popular spiritual-like song “Goin’ Home,” now a standard hymn in many churches.
Dvorak wrote that he wouldn’t have been able to write his Symphony No. 9 if he had not seen America. And, indeed, the New World Symphony not only captures the sound of America but also its vastness. Even when it was first performed, publicity notices mentioned that the symphony conveyed America’s “wide open spaces.” It was for good reason that Neil Armstrong brought a recording of the work to the moon in 1969.