Americans have always had a love affair with Antonin Dvorak, the Czech composer who lived and worked in the United States for five years in the 1890s. That is when he created several “American” works, including A Symphony from the New World — of which we New Worlders are particularly proud.
Dvorak was a man about town in New York City, where he headed the American Conservatory of Music and collaborated in composition with the New York Philharmonic. But he also summered in tiny Spillville, Iowa, where he is said to have heard, or conjured up, a vivid visage of the vast plains of North America, and the “Indian calls” of its Native Americans. He also soaked in the sounds of African-American spirituals, introduced to him by an African-American student. Some cynics say Americans have bent their ears around so that distinctively Central European music sounds like Native American melodies. But, what the heck! The truth of the matter is Dvorak had no interest in disputing the positive impressions of his American fans. He was as enthralled with America as Americans were enthralled with him. All of which brings us to Israeli-American cellist Amit Peled, who will perform Dvorak’s Concerto in B Minor for cello and orchestra in concerts with the Louisville Orchestra Friday and Saturday in Whitney Hall. The “All Dvorak” program also includes the composer’s Slavonic Dances, and his Symphony No. 7. Guest conductor Donato Cabrera has the baton. Peled says the cello concerto — especially its big and bold beginning — springs straight from Dvorak’s American experience.
“The first movement, I am Dvorak,” Peled said. “I’m in New York. I’m in the center of the world, in this majestic, growing place. You just throw Dvorak into New York in the 1890s: It’s exciting and noisy, and he feels all those things in the city.” The concerto begins with a famously-long orchestra introduction, setting things in place for the soloist — who enters like a hero — cutting strong, wide swaths across the strings.
“The first thing I do when I teach this piece is I go to the internet and search: New York City 1895 Images. You get black and white photos of Central Park, of carriages with horses, Columbus Circle, big buildings. It’s all exciting, and Dvorak was in the center of that.”