Orchestral concerts of classical music are nowadays routinely given thematic titles by their music directors or general managers, in the manner of record albums of an earlier era, such as “Bonjour Paris!” or “Nordic Nights.” It is an innocent practice, designed to give prospective audience members a taste of what to expect on the program.
In his opening concert of the Masterworks Series with the Spokane Symphony, however, James Lowe on Saturday did something remarkable: He created a thematic program called “A Place Called Home” that was itself a work of art.
Each of the composers on the program charged himself with the task of defining a national home through the medium of music. In “The Moldau” (1874), Bedrich Smetana portrays the great river that flows through his native Bohemia as a symbol of the unity and uniqueness of its people.
In “Chokfi’: Sarcasm for String Orchestra” (2018), Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate employs instruments and techniques of performance that had their origins in European culture to provide a musical representation of a wily trickster important in the culture of indigenous peoples of the American southeast.
As a gay Jewish man from Brooklyn, and as a committed progressive at a time when anyone left of center risked losing their livelihood, Aaron Copland had challenges to overcome to achieve acceptance in the American music establishment. His “Old American Songs Book 1” brings to life the traits he wished to represent as American: Quick wit, touching sentiment, naive humor and an enthusiastic openness to life.
On a 2017 commission from the Spokane Symphony, conductor William Harvey created a powerful setting of a hymn the Salish-speaking people received from missionaries in the 19th century. Harvey’s “Chaconne on č̓?anwí”celebrates the transformation of the tune into something wholly indigenous as an example of how Native peoples overcame the efforts of Europeans to obliterate their culture.
Capping these four examples of music designed to share with its audience the composers’ ideas of what constitutes “home,” the program concluded with the most ambitious and most beloved example in all of music, Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World” Op 95 (1893). The composer had been brought from his native Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) by a wealthy patron to the U.S. for the purpose of creating a new “voice” for American music, one that would distinguish it from the national voices of the Old World, even Dvorak’s own.
The control of tempo and dynamics that was on display in the successful season kickoff featuring Yo-Yo Ma was again apparent with the first few bars of Smetana’s “The Moldau.” The pictorial quality of the music that Smetana desired – the trickling origins of the river and its gradual growth into a mighty force – was etched with exceptional clarity by Lowe’s and the musicians’ tireless attention to the score details .
For all the beauty of the string playing (especially by the cellos) in this work, what remains most vivid is the playing of the principal flute, Julia Pyke. The crystalline purity of her tone, the expressivity and exactitude of her playing anchored the performance, and more than justified the importance assigned to her part by Smetana, and later in the evening, even more, by Dvorak.
In Chokfi’, Tate achieves the effect of conveying directly, and without any European “accent,” the character and atmosphere of a Native American legend, while using instruments and instrumental techniques that were familiar to Beethoven. Chokfi’ is Rabbit, the Chickasaw counterpart of Raven in the mythology of tribes: the deceptive, unreliable trickster who delights in upsetting the carefully laid plans of the more solemn deities. Without resorting to any of the tropes passed down from Rimsky-Korsakov or Richard Strauss, Tate conveys Rabbit’s unsettled energy and sudden shape-shifting, as well as his cleverness in avoiding every threat. “Chofki’ ” offers a bracing and energizing experience available from no composer in the European tradition.
The soloist in Copland’s “Old American Songs Book 1” was Spokane’s distinguished bass-baritone, Derrick Parker, who lavished his vocal and dramatic gifts on Copland’s charming suite of five songs without a hint of condescension. On the contrary, in both his charming remarks preceding each song and in his skillful scaling of his enormous resources of vocal power and color, Parker showed himself to be the embodiment of Copland’s idea of what it is, or should be, to be an American. His performance of Copland’s skillfully scored suite of songs showed the same openness and healthy populism that Copland, and we all, might wish for in our fellow citizens.
Following the break, Lowe walked onstage accompanied by the solo singer in Harvey’s “Chaconne on č̓?anwí,” Sulustu, a member of the Spokane Tribe whose Anglo name is Barry Moses. He is not a professional singer, but is gifted with an attractive voice. The audience was moved by his opening remarks, which described his role in attempting to save the language of the Spokane Tribe from extinction by founding Spokane Language House, designed to provide immersive training to members in a language in which only two remaining elders are fluent. Harvey’s “Chaconne” – a form of variation devolving from a courtly dance popular in the Baroque era – is brief, yet it succeeds in revealing differing elements in the solemn, soulful melody on which the variations are based. The audience acknowledged the honor of being present at the world premiere of such a fine work with a unanimous standing ovation.
It is to the great credit of Lowe and all the performers that these more compact works were not in any way overwhelmed or trivialized by Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Rather, much of the light it cast originated from our experience of those works, which, while shorter, were certainly not slighter in their intensity. Of the Dvorak, the achievement of which is attested to by its status among the most widely admired and performed masterpieces of music, little need be said here except that Lowe took not one phrase for granted, insisting that every voice be audible, executed and expressed. Still, one would be remiss not to single out the playing of Sheila Armstrong, English horn, whose mastery and eloquence in the second movement’s famous solo will remain in the memories of all who heard it.