Continuing with The Halle's two-week-long festival of music devoted to the Czech master composer Antonin Dvorak and the final Opus concert of the season, this afternoon's concert was almost fully-booked. I have rarely seen the Bridgewater Hall so full, and certainly with this being a weekday afternoon it was quite amazing. What was even more amazing was the number of young people in the audience. As part of The Halle's Education programme and their ongoing commitment and dedication to enriching and broadening young peoples' horizons through music, four school groups from the Stockport area were in the audience this afternoon, and after the concert were allocated a musician who would help them to create their own version of The New World Symphony. There were at least two other student groups in the audience too, but they must just have come unannounced. Good for them!
This afternoon got off to a very lively and indeed very Czech start, as the orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder played one of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances to put us all in the mood.
Following this we then welcomed Cellist Gary Hoffman to the stage to play Dvorak's only Cello Concerto. It is quite an unusual concerto in a couple of respects. First, there is a very long orchestral introduction and theme before the cello is allowed to play the well known and strident four note theme which forms the base of the first movement; and the third and final movement’s denouement is very slow and quiet, with only a short section of speedy and loud rousing music to bring the concerto to it's climax and finale - but without the cello, this is scored once again just for the orchestra.
In actual fact, Dvorak may have been better trying to have written a concerto for flute and cello, since all three movements have large chunks where the flute features prominently and has several moments of flute and cello dueting. Again, rather unusual.
During the first movement Hoffman must have heard what the audience also heard and that was that his cello was seemingly a little out of tune, especially when playing the difficult chord phrase at the beginning, and repeated again towards the end, since after the first movement he took a little time to retune his instrument and it sounded fine from then on. His playing though was both lyrical and passionate, and won himself a much deserved round of applause at the end.
After the interval, and it was time for the most famous of all of Dvorak's music, his 9th symphony, From The New World. There can be few other symphonies which have stood the test of time and popularity the way this one has, and lauded by critics, musicians and composers alike. There can be no denying that this symphony is a work of pure genius and is simply magnificent. However, this afternoon made it just a little bit more special, as Sir Mark explained a little about the background of the writing to this piece, telling us that once Dvorak arrived in America, great things were expected of him, and he was to write music which reflected the nation for the nation. He was already very well acquainted with the epic poem of Hiawatha by Longfellow, and so it was his fervent wish that he should write an opera using this poem as the base. He spent much time toiling over this work but in the end it was abandoned. Some of the music he wrote for this opera though has found its way into the 9th symphony, and indeed, many of the themes in the symphony are very American in both feel and in actuality, taking Negro songs that were popular at the time too. However, it is Hiawatha that takes the most credit, and in order to exemplify this, an actor was brought on to the stage to recite the relevant passages from the poem at the start of each moment, so that we had that fresh in our minds when hearing the music. And we then heard the music in a new and more knowledgeable light, and this was fascinating. The name of the actor sadly is not written in the programme, but I do believe his name was Johnny Murray. [If this is wrong then some kind soul will undoubtedly correct me].
I can now therefore claim with some authority that the first movement of the symphony describes the landscape of mountains, and the weather, in particular the thunder. In the second movement, the famous 'Going Home' theme is the death of Minnehaha, whilst the third movement is the wedding - a whirling and swirling wedding dance.
The enduring quality of this symphony is not just that it is great music, but that it is very dramatic, indeed operatic music. There is a clear narrative and melodies which were meant to have been sung, and a storyline. This is what makes the music so memorable. Dvorak was also one never to waste a good tune, and in the fourth and final movement we hear fragments of themes from earlier movements. The First movement's opening theme and again the 'Going Home' theme are in there amongst others.
With Sir Mark Elder conducting, and his passion for and knowledge of the music oozing from his baton and into the orchestra, this concert simply couldn't fail to be a hit. Dvorak's music is tuneful, sounding simple but yet extremely complex, and played superbly by one of the world's premier orchestras. What more could anyone ask for?
Reviewer: Mark Dee
Reviewed: 18th May 2016