The Madison Symphony Orchestra will do something unusual on Jan. 26 when it explores Antonín Dvorák's magnificent and controversial Symphony No. 9, popularly known as the New World Symphony. The concert will include a dramatic presentation on the making of this work, as well as a performance of its music. Part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Beyond the Score series, this one-time event is a first for the MSO.
The story behind New World began in 1891, when American philanthropist Jeannette Thurber invited the Czech composer to New York to direct the National Conservatory of Music. She wanted Dvorák to help create an American national music, so in 1893 he composed the Ninth Symphony, which echoes African American spirituals and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, an epic poem "full of the tender pathos of the here and the hereafter."
The first part of the concert will be a multimedia presentation with actors, videos, photos and narration. It will take the audience back to 1893 to explore the American landscapes, folk music and poetry that influenced Dvorák's composition. After an intermission, the MSO will perform the symphony in its entirety, with music director John DeMain conducting.
During the presentation, Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom will narrate. David Daniel, a core member of American Players Theatre, will play the role of Dvorák, and James Ridge, also a core member of APT, will play multiple roles. Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Colbert, director of the women's chorus at Mt. Zion Baptist Church and president of the Madison Symphony Chorus, will sing some of the spirituals Dvorák loved. Dan Lyons, principal pianist for the MSO, will provide accompaniment.
During his time in the U.S., Dvorák was deeply moved by Native American and African American music.
"The folk music of African Americans and Native Americans is soulful, longing music of a spiritual kind," DeMain says. "It's not completely removed from folk music of other countries, and it's the source material for the Ninth."
There is still controversy over whether the Ninth is American or European. DeMain thinks the work has multinational overtones.
"The symphony is American with German roots and Czech influences. Dvorák never lost love for his homeland," he says.
New World's multicultural nature stands out in the third movement, when the rhythms of the scherzo from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony mingle with the rhythms of the dance performed at Hiawatha's wedding.
This presentation should be refreshing, in part because Native Americans and African Americans are not given much attention on the classical-music stage. The event also honors women's contributions to classical music. That the Ninth was written at all is a nod to Thurber and the many other 19th-century women who helped promote and preserve classical music in America.
MSO executive director Rick Mackie is excited to see the audience respond to the concert.
"This will be a symphonic experience that's different from any other," he says. "You will hear the New World Symphony as you have never heard it before."