By Dennis D. Rooney
The final program of this season’s Palm Beach Sympony Masterworks Series, which took place April 10 in the Kravis Center’s Dreyfoos Hall, was well-balanced and enjoyed by the (largely un-masked) audience.
Among the many important commissions made by conductor André Kostelanetz is William Schuman’s New England Triptych, subtitled “Three Pieces for Orchestra After William Billings.” It is an expansion of the composer’s 1944 A William Billings Overture, which Schuman later withdrew in favor of his newer work, which was composed in 1956 and received its premiere performance that October, when Kostelanetz conducted the University of Miami Orchestra.
In it, three of the hymn tunes of Billings (1746-1800) are recalled, wrote Schuman, “as a departure point.” These three pieces are not a “fantasy” nor “variations” on themes of Billings, but rather a fusion of styles and musical language. Solo tympani introduce “Be Glad Then, America.”:
Be glad then, America,
Shout and rejoice.
Fear not O land,
Be glad and rejoice.
The rejoicing of the text finds its voice in the strings and the orchestra brass. The skillful brass and woodwind writing throughout the entire score was doubtless one reason that Schuman later made a version for concert band. “When Jesus Wept” opens with a solo bassoon later joined by solo oboe. The hymn, a round, is presented unaltered. The finale explores the dual use of “Chester,” Billings’s best-known work, first as hymn tune and then as a marching song of the Continental Army. Schwarz conducted a knowing performance contrasting the music’s intimacy and rousing high spirits.
The Schuman was followed by the Japanese-American violinist Midori, celebrating her 50th-birthday season, who played the Violin Concerto in D (Op. 35) of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Originally written in 1945 for Bronisław Huberman (1882-1947), it ultimately was performed and recorded by Jascha Heifetz (he encouraged Korngold to make the solo part even more virtuosic), who played the premiere in St. Louis on Feb. 15, 1947, and in Carnegie Hall five weeks later.
When it was new, the concerto was criticized for sounding like a Hollywood film score. Indeed, Korngold drew almost all of the work’s themes from some of the scores he wrote for Warner Bros. Today, such criticism has largely receded as fewer and fewer listeners have seen Anthony Adverse (1936), Another Dawn, Juárez, or The Prince and the Pauper (all 1937), thus allowing the concerto’s music to be heard without the cinematic associations.
Its character is lyrical in the first and second movements, Moderato nobile and Romance, respectively, with melodies that can best be described as Straussian (Richard, not Johann). The boisterous finale, Allegro molto assai, opens with a jig and concludes in a blaze of virtuosity. It was a testament to Midori’s experience and skillful husbanding of her instrumental resources that she brought off the work despite possessing neither the sizeable tone nor the technical means to achieve true bravura. Despite sympathetic orchestral support, in many places she could barely be heard.
But she captured the character of lyric passages most satisfyingly on her Guarneri del Gesù, the “ex-Huberman,” of 1734, an interesting tie-in, as Huberman initially approached Korngold to write the concerto.
Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 (in G, Op. 88) occupied the second half of the program. Sometimes nicknamed the composer’s “English” symphony because of its English publisher (Novello) and the fact that Dvořák had enjoyed great success there since 1884, the symphony was actually composed and first performed in Bohemia, where it was completed in late 1889. Dvořák conducted its premiere in Prague early the following year and did so in London in April 1890.
Its tunefulness and the strong influence of folksong marked a departure from the more rigorous formal design of his earlier symphonies. Only in the U.S. does it yield to the Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) as the most popular Dvořák symphony. The performance conveyed only part of the work’s gaiety and variety of moods, due chiefly to persistent intonation problems in the orchestral strings. The violins were divided, as Dvořák would have expected, but a lack of unanimity in intonation and vibrato often made them sound diffuse.
The contrabasses, along the house left stage wall, produced a solid tonal foundation, but the cellos sounded rather undernourished. A muffed note by the second trumpet in the fanfare that begins the finale was unfortunate, but the overall quality of the brass and wind playing brought great strength to the performance. Schwarz conducted a bit stiffly, but at least he chose sprightly tempos, and nothing was sentimentalized.