Classical

Review: Grant Park Orchestra Returns to an American Classic… by a Czech Composer

Guest conductor Eun Sun Kim at the Grant Park Music Festival concert. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, op. 95—better known as The New World Symphony—was the featured piece at this past weekend’s Grant Park Music Festival. The Grant Park Orchestra performed this well-loved piece, with its evocative “Going Home” 2nd movement, with tender loving care. 

The program was under the baton of guest conductor Eun Sun Kim of South Korea, who in August will become music director of the San Francisco Opera. Coincidentally, she was cited in a New York Times article published Sunday for overcoming alleged discrimination against Asians in American classical companies, and was also described as the first woman to gain a director’s role at a major U.S. opera company. 

The New World Symphony is one of the most American of classical music pieces. It was one of the first pieces performed by the Grant Park Orchestra way back in 1935.

So how did a Czech composer create this piece just months after first arriving in the New World? It started with Jeannette Thurber, a wealthy woman who wanted a high-profile composer to direct the National Conservatory of Music in America that she had founded in New York City. She persuaded Dvořák, already a major international star, and he accepted, lured by the opportunity to help define American music. (A salary offer that was monumental for the 1890s didn’t hurt her case.)  

There was a common interest: Dvořák had an intense fascination with Black spirituals and Indigenous American music, stating that these provided the basis for a truly American art form, and Thurber, at a time when racism was state policy in much of the United States, welcomed Black students to her conservatory. 

Dvořák’s homesickness for Prague was alleviated by a visit, recommended by his assistant, to Spillville, a rural hub for Czech immigrants in northeast Iowa, during the summer of 1893. While working to complete his Symphony No. 9, Dvořák took a side trip to conduct a concert at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which had a large Czech settlement in the Pilsen neighborhood on the South Side (where there is a city park named for the composer).  

His New World Symphony opened to acclaim in New York in September 1893 and immediately was established as one of his masterworks. The theme of the 2nd movement became a familiar American cultural icon. Music historians have debated about whether its major influence was Black spiritual music —evoked by the song Going Home, with lyrics in Black dialect, written by William Ames Fisher, a former student of Dvořák—or Czech folk music, reflecting the composer’s longing for his homeland. 

Soloist Natasha Paremski leaned into Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, then took a bow with guest conductor Eun Sun Kim. Photos by Bob Benenson.

The piece was preceded by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 35, debuted in 1933. The highlights were a dynamic performance on piano by guest soloist Natasha Paremski paired with the mastery of David Gordon, the orchestra’s principal on trumpet.  

Those who bandy about the term “cancel culture” should read more about the challenges faced by composers during the Soviet era, many of whom were purged for music deemed by the authorities as not sufficiently patriotic. Shostakovich walked a fine line with his modernist tendencies, and gained some security a decade later with his solemn Symphony No. 8, which the USSR government adopted as a tribute to the lives lost in Nazi Germany’s long siege of the city of Stalingrad. 

The Shostakovich was a dramatic shift from the concert’s opener titled Blow, Fly, Pop! Here the orchestra let its hair down to an unusual extent. Created by Korean-born American composer Texu Kim in 2016, the piece is as confectionery as the Grant Park Orchestra gets. It features goofy touches, such as popping balloons, plastic sheets shaken by orchestra members, a big gym ball played with mallets, and a finale of sprayed bubbles. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the composer says his goal for writing music is fun, and the piece was definitely not intended to be taken with critical seriousness. 

Blow, Fly, Pop! was the purposefully goofy opener to the concert. “Instruments” included popped balloons, a gym ball played with mallets, and bubble sprayers. Photos by Bob Benenson.

Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra’s principal conductor, returns to the podium for Wednesday’s concert, which begins at 6:30pm. The program features Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Flute Concerto by Saverio Mercadante and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 2. Most seats and the entire Great Lawn are free; reserved tickets up front are $25 and can be purchased by clicking here. 

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