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Featured compositions for program were written on U.S. soil

October 16, 2003|by Elizabeth Schulze

This weekend the Maryland Symphony Orchestra will present the first program of our 22nd MasterWorks Series. Our program, American Impressions, offers musical perspectives from a celebrated outsider and two "homegrown" American composers.

In 1892, famous Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was engaged to be the director of the recently established National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Announcing his wish to "discover what young Americans had in them and to help them to express it," Dvorak immersed himself in the native music of the New World. He was particularly impressed with American folk songs and slave songs, as well as the melodies and rhythms of American Indians. He believed that American composers would do well to avail themselves of this rich musical heritage as inspiration and source material for their own compositions.

Dvorak's masterful and immensely popular Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" was composed during his stay in the United States. The work's premiere on Dec. 16, 1893, performed by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, remains one of the most significant events in American music history. Dvorak never quoted directly from American folk and native sources, but he sought to "capture the spirit of those American melodies."

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Called the "Walt Whitman of American music," Charles Ives was a true American original. He rebelled against European musical traditions by creating unconventional structures and harmonies in his music that expressed the inner life of the mind and spirit. At the same time, he drew heavily from the sights and sounds that he knew as a boy in a small town in Connecticut. Allusions to patriotic melodies and hymns infuse many of his works with a sense of nostalgia.

Ives' "Three Places in New England" was written between 1903 and 1914. The first of the three movements was inspired by the composer's impressions upon viewing St. Gauden's monument dedicated to the African-Americans who fought for the Union in the Civil War. The allusion to a slave song amidst the atmospheric trudging of the brave soldiers toward freedom conveys the sense of gravity and sacrifice. The middle movement "Putnam's Camp" musically depicts the experience of a young boy at a Fourth of July celebration. His dreams awaken the ghosts of Revolutionary soldiers marching across the field, all against the background of dueling local bands playing patriotic and popular tunes of the day. The third work blends the flowing movement of the Housatonic River with a church organ sounding hymns from the distance.

When Samuel Barber was asked to compose a concerto for voice and orchestra in 1947, he chose to use the nostalgic text of author James Agee, who describes his experiences as a child on summer evenings in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1915. Barber beautifully captures the gentle wonder of the child, whose exaltations and insecurities find their way safely back to the constant and reassuring rocking of chairs on the porch. We are pleased and honored to welcome soprano Linda Hohenfeld as our guest soloist for this weekend's performance of "Knoxville: Summer 1915."

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