Măcelaru Conducts Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Brahms, Bruch, and Dvořák


 In what was likely one of the best pre-performance talks ever hosted by the CSO, personable composer and conductor William White made the worlds and works of Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), Max Bruch  (1838 – 1920) and Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) come to life, and traced the connections between these three 19th Century European-born composers.



We learned that Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances, No. 17 – 21 (Orchestrated by Antonín Dvořák) were actually, in today’s parlance, a significant meal ticket for Brahms.   These were written by Brahms as four-handed piano pieces and proved very popular in the parlors of the burgeoning middle classes where newly mass-produced pianos were often the center of home entertainment.  Wisely, Brahms actually allowed his publisher to get the lion’s share of the profits while he used it as entrée to make sure that his other, far more serious works, were published as well.


Brahms, an elder statesman of music in the Austrian Empire of his times adjudicated a competition for an Austrian music prize, and it was through this that he first discovered and became so impressed with Antonín Dvořák, and especially his dexterity at weaving native folk song tunes into his compositions.


How interesting that claims one way or the other of Dvořák using American songs—of Native Americans or of African-Americans—has been a controversy swirling around Dvořák’s New World Symphony, as it is called in shorthand, in which so many of us hear themes that have come to define an American sound in it.



White regaled us with stories not only of how cash-strapped and agoraphobic Dvořák was lured to teach at a new National Conservatory of Music by its founder Jeannette Thurber for a generous salary, but also of what that time and place must have felt like for this life-long Bohemian.  It was the fourth centennial celebration of Columbus Day in New York just two days after Dvořák arrived in the city.  Thurber, who wanted Dvořák to compose an opera to the “Song of Hiawatha” made sure that newly arrived Dvořák also saw Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show soon after his arrival when it was in town. 



Perhaps most interesting of all, White told us of Dvořák’s friendship and admiration for the voice of an African-American student at this tuition-free race-blind school, Burleigh.  Playing an old recording of Burleigh singing a spiritual, White told us that Dvořák not only loved his friend’s voice but found the English Horn to approximate it, an instrument that so memorably carries the theme in New World Symphony.



Of Max Bruch we learned that his “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26” was a bit of his undoing.  It was an immediate hit and high bar that this early achiever was thought to have never reached again.  Bruch also never had the commercial success that Brahms did with his “Hungarian Dances” and so we were left with a picture painted by White of Bruch, the never quite satisfied man.



How rich to have the times so well-drawn and then hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform these works under the baton of conductor Cristian Măcelaru!


The performance began with the light and lively Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances, Nos. 17 – 21”, orchestrated by Antonin Dvořák.  Then, violin soloist Elena Urioste in a beautiful blue satiny gown gave a three standing ovation performance of Bruch’s “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26”.



Compelling as these performances were, and in part due to the vivid detail that White had drawn of Dvořák’s time in America, the show was somewhat stolen by the post-intermission performance of Dvořák’s “Smphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 (From the New World)”.   Not only did Burleigh voice-like English Hornist Scott Hostetler give us such an outstandingly crisp melodic line, but many other sections of the orchestra in their turn—brass, winds, strings, percussion—reminded us of just how superlative this orchestra always seems to be.  Knowing that Dvořák came to say the equivalent of  “Bah Humbug!” to any suggestions that he had captured Native American and spiritual songs in his works, the so iconic sounds of America in this piece were all the more astounding.


There are pre-concert lectures for all CSO performances.


This season’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts continue in Symphony Center through early summer and then transition to Ravinia.  For tickets and information call the CSO box office at 312 294 3000 or visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra website.


Symphony Center

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