Dedicated to starting a dialogue beyond the stage, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center partners with experimental orchestra PostClassical Ensemble starting next week to present “Dvorák: In Search of America.”
The festival, beginning Tuesday and culminating March 1 with a final concert from the ensemble, will feature a series of concerts and talks, focusing on the Czech composer, and specifically his connection to American music.
Born in 1841, Antonín Dvorák came to the United States in 1892 to discover and immerse himself in American music. During his time in America, Dvorák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Over the course of his stay, Dvorák also supported the notion that African American and Native American influences should be used as the foundation for American music.
“Dvorák was really affected by traditional American music and a lot of that was hearing black spirituals for the first time and hearing Native American influences in music,” said Paul Brohan, director of artistic initiatives at the University of Maryland, College Park’s Clarice Smith Center.
“[Dvorák] was amazed by African American spirituals and dances of Native Americans,” added Angel Gil-Ordóńez, musical director of PostClassical Ensemble. “It’s a personal impact in his music, but on the other hand, he influences immensely the American composers of his time. ... We are exploring those two impacts of his stay here in the U.S.”
Gil-Ordóńez founded PostClassical in 2003 along with his good friend and musical historian Joseph Horowitz. The ensemble, whose tagline is “more than an orchestra,” is composed of about 60 to 70 Washington, D.C.-area musicians. Fifty will participate in next week’s festival at Clarice Smith.
“We’re talking about la crčme de la crčme,” said Gil-Ordóńez. “People who want to be challenged.”
PostClassical specializes in classical music from the Americas and Spain, and the orchestra rarely performs music composed before 1900. Its mission, said Gil-Ordóńez, is to “bring a new way to present classical music.”
All PostClassical concerts are cross-disciplinary, often incorporating visual components including lighting design as well as pre- and post-concert conversations.
The Dvorák festival will be no different.
On March 1, the ensemble will present the main event when it plays Dvorák’s “Spring Serenade,” “American Suite” and “Hiawatha Melodrama,” all under the conduction of Gil-Ordóńez. The melodrama is a creation of PostClassical Ensemble member Michael Beckerman. It is inspired by a 1885 Longfellow poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” and draws on elements of Dvorák’s “New World Symphony.” “The Song of Hiawatha” will incorporate narration and visual components, including paintings similar to those seen in the late 19th century.
Before the orchestra performs, pianist Benjamin Pasternack will play a piano version of Dvorák’s “American Suite,” accompanied by a discussion on the piece.
After the PostClassical performance, Horowitz will provide further commentary on Dvorák and his influence.
“Joseph has written extensively about how classical music has developed in the United States,” Gil-Ordóńez said.
“[He] is one of the world’s Dvorák experts,” added Brohan. “I think our audience having direct access to him ... is probably unparalleled.”
Brohan added that PostClassical’s unconventional delivery of classical music gives listeners a more well-rounded experience, something he said the Clarice Smith Center aims to achieve with all of its performances.
“In a performance that is maybe all music, what the audience is asked to do sometimes is read extensive program notes,” he said. “PostClassical does that, but they are much more committed to presenting the matter in a much more practical way, providing insight in greater depth than just providing the program notes.”