Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “New World Symphony”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “New World Symphony” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend and I had the pleasure of attending Friday night. The WVSO performed Antonin Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World)” (a.k.a. the “New World Symphony”) and Anton Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 3 in D minor.”

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion, Maestro Cooper and orchestra member Tom Beal talked about the Germanic tradition of the two pieces. Cooper revealed that the WV Symphony will perform Bruckner’s eighth symphony in one year and have already started preparation for the performance.

Beal humorously compared the old rivalry between Brahms and Bruckner fans to East Coast vs. West Coast rappers, while Cooper compared Bruckner’s compositions to a “primordial mist” which allows the listener to “glimpse elements of all creation.” I had noticed in my preliminary research that Bruckner’s third symphony often receives incredibly negative criticism and Cooper addressed this, pleading with us to take Bruckner as he is – to be to “washed” and “bathed” in his music without expectations or comparisons.

Cooper then called Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” a “Top 10” classical work, commending the unity and “incredible orchestration” of the piece. He joked about and hummed the “cheesy” “boogie woogie line” from the Czechian folk-influenced portion of the symphony, but overall deemed it “justly popular” and “a fabulous piece of music” that is very fun to play.

First up was “Symphony No. 3 in D minor” by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. A contemporary of my beloved Mahler, Bruckner’s music was influenced by Beethoven as well as his own deeply held faith that music is an extension of God’s creation. It was this spiritual belief, as well as his sensitivity to criticism, that restrained Bruckner from experimenting or expressing himself too much in his work.

His music was also heavily influenced by Wagner, particularly his third symphony. Subtitled “The Wagner Symphony,” Bruckner submitted an early version of his third symphony to Wagner for review, eventually incorporated direct quotes from Wagner’s operas into revisions of the piece, and dedicated the symphony to Wagner with the inscription “to the unreachable world-famous noble master of poetry and music.”

The first movement is full of grandiose, surging waves punctuated by sudden ebbs of silence and lovely, gentle laps of melody. The second movement begins with such an elegant lilt that Cooper almost appeared to be dancing as he gracefully conducted the orchestra. I don’t know if it was the brilliance of the WV Symphony’s performance or my heeding Cooper’s advice to just let Bruckner’s music wash over me, but I loved the hour-long, four-movement symphony.

The second half of the evening was devoted to “Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World)” by Antonin Dvořák. Dvořák’s ninth is perhaps his most famous work, at least here in America. The symphony’s many inspirations included Dvořák’s experiences in New York City, the traditional Czech and Bohemian folk music he heard in a small immigrant community in Iowa, and his interest in Native American music and African American spirituals. The result is one of the more modern sounding classical works.

A trumpet blare and the fluttering of flutes heralded the beginning of the first movement before a dramatic rumble as the rest of the orchestra joined in. The exquisite second movement of the New World Symphony, which was later adapted into the song “Goin’ Home,” is a melodic thing of beauty. There was something very lyrical about the underlying melody of the entire piece, particularly the first two movements. Yet even the dramatic bombast of the third movement is tempered by that intricate melody. The third movement also features unusual chiming embellishments that almost sounded like the ring of a vintage telephone. The fourth movement was literally cinematic – I could’ve sworn it sounded like the themes from Jaws and Star Wars intertwined.

Unbeknown to me, there had been a tornado warning in Charleston during the concert. Cooper did warn the audience about a pending storm and assured us that we were in the safest place if the power went out. We couldn’t even hear the storm during the spectacular performance and the skies were clear by the time we stepped out of the Clay Center. As Cooper himself said, “The weather outside is frightful, but inside is delightful.”

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But WVSO’s site had a link to this YouTube video…

You can download free, legal mp3s of the Columbia University Orchestra performing Dvořák’s New World Symphony here, and hear a discussion by Marin Alsop as well as excerpts of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performing the piece at NPR.

WV Symphony Official Site