Madison Debut of “Beyond the Score” Opens New Worlds of Dvorak

Madison Debut of “Beyond the Score” Opens New Worlds of Dvorak

For some of us who follow the Madison Symphony Orchestra closely, the announcement nearly a year ago that this season would bring the local debut of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s program, “Beyond the Score,” elicited high anticipation. Apparently the steady stream of publicity the last couple of weeks paid off, for it was a sold-out Overture Hall audience Sunday afternoon that witnessed the unveiling. If anyone wondered what could be new for any literate listener in that beloved warhorse of the repertoire, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, subtitled by the composer “From the New World,” the results exceeded all hopes and expectations.

Launched in 2005, “Beyond the Score” (BTS) has spread throughout the U.S., Canada and Holland, and has now reached its own repertoire of twenty-two orchestral works. The idea is to offer a sixty-minute presentation melding actors, the orchestra and video to present the full scope of a great work’s creation and the musical nuggets often hidden within the score. In this instance, the MSO brought along David Daniel and James Ridge from American Players Theatre, Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom, mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Colbert and an endlessly fascinating and stimulating video backdrop.

Yocom, Ridge and Daniel were seated at the edge of the stage, the latter in character as Dvorak (and spot-on visually as the video revealed), Ridge speaking various parts, whether one of the composer’s sons, a critic, et al. DeMain even had a few lines as Anton Seidl, the conductor who led the premiere with the New York Philharmonic. The basic outlines of the genesis of the piece—its composition while Dvorak headed the National Conservatory in New York City from 1893-1895, his aim in encouraging young American composers to utilize their own roots, particularly in African American spirituals and Native American songs and rhythms—are well known, but the BTS script filled in a whole lot of gaps. A great deal of detail emerged from the influence of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (which Dvorak had already read in Czech), and the script managed to put the now-uncomfortable attitudes regarding Native Americans into context without minimizing the egregious realities surrounding the treatment of the native tribes.

BTS also does a superb job of never getting too technical or even overly focused on dissecting the work musically, but did give us new insights into subtle harmonic links among the four movements, interesting influences of Beethoven and Wagner in some of Dvorak’s motifs, and of course some wonderful clarification of what was “New World” and “Old World” in this beloved score. Ms. Colbert provided some brief excerpts of the spirituals Dvorak came to love, especially “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

As for the full performance after intermission, it would almost suffice to say that this was vintage MSO, c.2013—clean, crisp, bright, never flagging in energy and never lacking in expression. While the orchestra has continued to occupy a new level of technical polish and a collective can-do spirit regardless of repertoire, it seemed on Sunday that DeMain, even more than in the recent past, was able to focus more on the music between the lines, as it were. Dvorak’s masterpiece is no technical mountain of course, but what was notable was DeMain’s ability to nail tempos perfectly on either side of transitions. All sections sounded glorious, with the woodwinds particularly luminous, led by Joseph Morris’ liquid clarinet sound, matched by Stephanie Jutt’s supple flute (and of course Jennifer Morgan’s poignant rendering of the famous English Horn solo).

But the brass, strings and percussion were no less responsible for what was certainly the quickest and most boisterous ovation heard in Overture Hall in some time. The shouts which punctuated the standing ovation continued throughout the multiple curtain calls, even after the soloists were duly acknowledged. While we can only hope that this is the first of more Beyond the Score presentations (could it replace the ninth subscription concert that was lost in the financial meltdown?), the best news is that just ahead the MSO will give us a Valentine in the guise of a fantastic mix of old and new trumpet concertos, a young, charismatic soloist, and voluptuous orchestral offerings. It’ll be time to pack the hall again.