April 16, 2010
Jung-Ho Pak created an outstanding program for the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra, taking the much-loved, but often performed New World Symphony by Antonin Dvořák and giving it new brilliance and perspective by pairing it with African-American and Native American music.
In his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” which premiered in 1893, Czech composer Dvořák sought to create a uniquely American symphony by drawing on authentic Native American and African-American music, as he had incorporated folk tunes from his native Bohemia and Moravia into his earlier symphonies, operas, and chamber music.
Dvořák has been quoted as saying: “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”
Yet, he also said, “I found that the music of the Negroes and of the Indians was practically identical,” and that “the music of the two races bore a remarkable similarity to the music of Scotland.”
It is interesting to note that haunting theme played by the English horn in the Largo movement of the symphony was based on Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” and was intended by Dvořák to convey a Native American mood, not an African-American spiritual. “Going Home,” a moving, but not authentic “Negro spiritual,” is based on the Largo, rather than the other way around.
Similarities in African-American and Native American music are explained by musicologists who write that both are based on the pentatonic scale. Some felt Dvorák was attempting to convey the New World as a land of innocence, in comparison to the old. Others have said that the symphony has more in common with the folk music of Bohemia than with the US.
No matter. It is a powerful and beautiful symphony, loved by audiences everywhere; it is a truly multicultural work, and Mr. Pak emphasized that with his other program choices: “From the Black Belt” by African-American composer William Grant Still and “The Gift of the Elk: A Suite for Native American Flute” commissioned by Mr. Pak from composer James Cockey especially for this concert.
“From the Black Belt” was first on the program, and Mr. Pak introduced it, explaining its quirky, moving, and humorous seven movements to the audience, beginning with the very short “Li’l Scamp,” no more than 10 seconds long. Mr. Still (1895-1978) was an African-American composer of classical music, notable for being the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra and to have his work performed by a major orchestra.
The work was light and engaging; the movements relatively short and varied. “Li’l Scamp” was greeted by delighted laughter, while “Honeysuckle” was dreamy and flowing. One could easily imagine watching flowers moved by a gentle breeze, while sitting languidly on the back porch. There was a nice use of bass instruments supporting the high notes. “Dance” was rhythmic and jaunty, featuring a jazzy flute solo. All too soon, it was over.
“Mah Bones is Creakin’ ” was strong and loud, with bone-rattling sound effects. “Blue” offered another flute solo, wistful and melancholy, the piece growing increasingly slower as it ended. “Brown Girl” had a wonderful slow and tranquil feel, and “Clap Yo’ Han’s” was jazzy and upbeat, with interesting percussion effects, again growing slower at the end.
Mr. Pak introduced “The Song of The Elk” with the story about how he had come to commission it, searching the Internet for an authentic Native American work. He found an immediate affinity with Native American flutist Joseph Fire Crow, who grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and now lives in Connecticut with his wife. Mr. Fire Crow introduced Mr. Pak to composer Jim Cockey of Idaho, with whom Mr. Fire Crow had collaborated in the past.
Mr. Cockey came out to discuss the work; as it was, of course, the world premiere of the composition. Mr. Cockey explained that the music was strongly influenced not only by Native American music, but by a strong connection to the land. To emphasize that connection, the music was accompanied by images projected above the orchestra, taken by noted nature photographer Glenn Oakley.
Joseph Fire Crow brought his Native American flute, drums, authentic voice, and warm and gracious presence to the performance of “The Gift of the Elk.” Dressed in a striking ceremonial white costume, with long fringe, he had command of the stage during his performance and, at the same time, radiated his genuine love for his people, for all people, for his stories and legends, for the land, and for the music.
“The Gift of the Elk” tells the story of how the Native American flute came to the Cheyenne people and the importance of spreading love with the flute during life and passing on that love, by passing on the flute, at the end of life. It begins and ends with a pow wow theme, includes a traditional Cheyenne welcome, and tells the story of the flute in words and music. Movements express different emotions: Celebration, and Love.
Mr. Fire Crow’s flute playing was lyrical, and powerful, transforming a “folk instrument” into a compelling musical experience. The melodies were not complex, but reflected the cultural uses of the flute in hunting and courting. The audience loved it, mobbing his CD table at intermission, for a chance to buy a CD from him. He has many, including a Grammy-Award winning album and a NAMMY (Native American Music award)-nominated one.
He also played drum (and an authentic Cheyenne drum was used by the percussion section), and sang with heartfelt conviction, in both high and low registers, as if echoing himself. It was not the polished voice of an opera singer, but it was a warm and earthy authentic expression that lent warmth and genuineness to the performance.
The balance between orchestra and flute was good, and the piece gives the orchestra both mellow and grand interludes, accented by photographs of rising suns, expansive prairies, mountains, buffalo, and elk. The woodwinds at times supported the Native American flute melody, while the strings sometimes provided pizzicato and bowed support. The Love song, in particular, was flowing and plaintive, sad, yet satisfying, giving us a sense of coming full circle.
The closing pow wow was dramatic, showcasing the drums and Mr. Fire Crow’s singing. It was a moving event, and the audience leapt to its collective feet, audibly voicing their approval.
After intermission came “From the New World,” which shared certain similarities with “The Gift of the Elk,” notably the lyrical and moving Largo theme, expressively played by Laura Pardee Schaefer on the English horn, and the tumultuous final movement, with its very recognizable grand theme and echoes of the familiar Largo theme.
There was an excellent range of dynamics, from the gentle sound of a solo flute, offering quiet meditative moments, to the frolicking oboe, to the grand and powerful thunder of the whole orchestra, carrying the audience along in the emotion and excitement of this exuberant Romantic work.
Altogether, it was another excellent concert experience presented by Mr. Pak and the CCSO.
Music Education Made Easy
Not content to simply perform this exquisite music for us, Mr. Pak wants us to appreciate it on many levels and has provided numerous opportunities to educate and involve the audience, not only in the pre-concert talks by John F. Clark and his own comments in those talks and on stage, but through workshops given prior to the concert by George Scharr, education director for the symphony, and at the CCSO Guild’s luncheons with the artists, which generally take place at noon on the Friday before the weekend’s concerts.
The luncheon I attended last Friday was a much-appreciated opportunity to get to know both Mr. Fire Crow and Mr. Cockey, as well as chat again with Mr. Pak. In addition, I met some very interesting people at my table, several of whom played and were knowledgeable about the Native American flute.
A wealth of information and guidance is provided in all these forums, encouraging individuals to delve further into classical music.
As one who has sometimes complained about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the sound system at CCSO Pops concerts, I particularly appreciated Mr. Clark’s honesty at the pre-concert talk, in which he encouraged attendees to read, in the printed program, the words of the story that Mr. Fire Crow tells, with orchestra accompaniment, just in case the sound problems that plagued the dress rehearsal had not been fully resolved.
It is clear that this is an orchestra that cares deeply about the music it performs and how it is presented.
These programs for adults supplement and support the CCSO’s extensive programs for students: MusicWorks!, in which music education is offered in the schools in many and varied ways. To support these educational programs, the CCSO is sponsoring a Maestro’s Music & Wine Tour on Tuesday, April 27, from 5 to 7:30 PM at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, 307 Old Main Street, in South Yarmouth. For a tax-deductible $50 donation, attendees will enjoy wine, refreshments, and music from around the world, played by accomplished young musicians. For more information on that event, visit www.capesymphony.org