Wednesday, September 14, 2011

REVIEW: NEW MUSICAL ENTITY DEBUTS ON 9-11

By Sheila Abrams

Sheila-current3The newly-created orchestra that goes by the name Musica Morristown made its debut on Sept. 11, virtually requiring that the theme of the concert be patriotism. And so it was, as the group which combines the New Philharmonic with the Westfield Symphony appeared in Dolan Hall on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station on a Sunday afternoon when the whole country seemed to have wrapped itself in the flag to honor those lost in the attack ten years ago.

Tough economic times have made life very hard for most arts organizations, and particularly the smaller ones. We were sorry to lose the Colonial Symphony and are delighted that these two regional orchestras have joined forces and are proceeding with an ambitious season. The emotion packed into the Sept. 11 date made it a good time to start, and the large audience seemed to include many supporters of the two groups, wishing them well. With two conductors, Leon Hyman of the New Philharmonic and David Wroe of the Westfield Symphony, and 54 musicians, presumably from the ranks of both orchestras, they did not disappoint.

Maestro Hyman kicked things off with the National Anthem, the audience standing and singing. One wonders why this is a common practice at sporting events but almost never at concerts. It was actually very nice to hear the anthem played by a professional orchestra.

The program began with two pieces, radically different but providing a great counterpoint: Aaron Copland’s rousing Fanfare for the Common Man and Samuel Barber’s elegiac Adagio for Strings. While the fanfare is triumphal, the adagio is surely one of the most mournful pieces of music ever composed. It has been performed at many funerals and other memorial events.

The adagio was introduced at the concert by a recitation by Maestro Wroe of a selection from the work of Emily Dickinson. Though now an American citizen (as noted in the program), Wroe still retains the kind of British accent that puts most Americans into a state of awe. He read, and the strings played, beautifully, with Maestro Hyman conducting. Following the adagio, Wroe read again, this time an exquisite poem, “The Gift,” by contemporary poet Li-Young Lee.

The choice of the next piece on the program, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, has no evident connection to the 9-11 commemoration, unless its relationship to the opera, Fidelio, is the link. Fidelio is about a struggle against tyranny and maybe that’s the connection. In any case, the overture is such a powerful piece of orchestral music in its own right that no excuse is really needed for its inclusion in a program.

The first part of the concert ended with a peculiar choice, an orchestration of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. Again the audience was invited to stand and sing. Since this song is not the National Anthem, we thought the standing was unnecessary.

There were no questions, though, about the choice for the second part of the program: Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, From the New World. This exquisite work, from a Czech composer, is virtually the parent of American orchestral music.

Dvorak came to the United States in 1892 at the behest of a wealthy patroness of the arts and stayed until 1895,. He was to oversee an American music school that would provide education and opportunities to musicians of African descent. Living in New York and later visiting a Czech settlement in Iowa, Dvorak immersed himself in American music, as he did in the folk music of his native Bohemia which influenced his early compositions.

In 1893, he began work on the New World Symphony, incorporating influences from black spirituals, cowboy songs, popular music of the period and even native American legends. Somehow, his music releases vistas of the American frontiers, wide open and filled with potential. It is an amazing work with a unique capacity to evoke visual images. This symphony is more than just a single breath of fresh air.

The performance by Musica Morristown under the baton of Maestro Wroe was a pleasure. A conductor of great theatricality, he virtually dances while conducting. He seemed, with his intense expression and gesture, to be virtually extracting the music from the sections of the orchestra. Watching him was entertainment in itself.

The multi-media aspect of the Sept. 11 concert foreshadows the future intention of Musica Morristown. On Sunday, Oct. 30, they will stage a Halloween Spooktacular! which will include a showing of a 1929 movie, The Iron Mask, with a “live symphonic soundtrack.” Then, on March 11, they will be joined by the Dance Theater of Harlem for a program called Music in Motion. Keep posted here for more information about these events. To buy tickets, call 973.408.3978.