By Colin Roshak
Folk music is an old friend of classical music and has long played an important role in the development of western art music.
The Anchorage Symphony returns this week for Trailblazers, a concert celebration of an underappreciated master paired with two pillars of the canon strung together by the familiar sounds of traditional folk music paired with classical affect.
The concert opens with Beethoven’s fiery Egmont Overture. Written towards the end of his heroic period, this is Beethoven in the extreme: dramatic highs, billowing lows and, in true Beethovenian fashion, nothing in moderation and very little left to the imagination.
Violinist Zach DePue first performed with the ASO in 2011 in concert as one third of the bluegrass/classical crossover ensemble ‘Time for Three’. He returns this week as soloist in Antonin Dvorak’s violin concerto. Dvorak is known for his lyrical writing and tuneful orchestration, as well as for his use of folk melodies. DePue’s interests in bluegrass and traditional folk music has led to a diverse performing life and his exploration of alternative repertoire has served to inform his classical performances. “There’s a lot that goes on in the concerto... especially in some of those folk melodies, that they don’t have to sound classical, that they have a freedom to them that we can sound a little rustic,” DePue said. “Dvorak is one of the most famous composers for taking folk idioms and instilling them into the symphonic experience.”
DePue first performed the concerto nearly 20 years ago and looks forward to returning to the piece. “I was nineteen and fell in love with studying it and performing it,” he said. “So this is very exciting.”
Dvorak’s music is folksy and energetic, and at his best, his writing is rife with tumult and passion. The concerto opens with a rousing first theme, played immediately by the violin, that returns throughout the movement. The first movement flows attacca, without break, into the second movement. The fiery technical passages of the outer movements are what make the concerto a staple for concerto competitions and recitals, but the middle movement is what makes the work a masterpiece. The simple adagio theme is somewhat of a surprise after the drama of the first movement. The violin meaders in vocalise melismas, accompanied by wind solos, showcasing the lyricism of the instrument and of Dvorak’s colorful writing. The finale is driven by a dancing triple meter and soaring violin and allows for a virtuosic fireworks display for the soloist.
The namesake of the concert is late romantic American composer Florence Price and her Symphony No. 1 in E minor. Price not only played an integral role in the development of the standard American classical repertoire during her own time, but also paved the way for a generation of composers after her. Price is regarded as the first African-American composer to receive major recognition, and her first symphony was the first by a black woman to be performed by a major symphony orchestra when it was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933. For reference, this premiere was more than thirty years before black women were legally permitted to exercise their right to vote. A generation earlier, Florence Price was bucking the established order and carving out a place for herself in the pantheon of great American composers.
Price’s first symphony is undeniably American. It begins with a jaunty bassoon solo, joined by the other winds and accompanied by the strings. The first movement could accompany a classic western, with snappy rhythms and open intervals that evoke a sense of open expanse and adventure. The quieter movements feel introspective and ernest, and every member of the wind and brass sections are given moments to shine. The string writing is lush, and the winds soaring and as the piece settles in, Price smoothly maneuvers between moments of tenacity and pastoral ease.
Trailblazers presents an underrepresented icon, two well worn masters and the intersection of western art music and folk melody. The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra presents Trailblazers this coming Saturday at 8pm in the Atwood Concert Hall. Tickets are available at CenterTix.com.