If it weren’t for Dvorak, the music world would probably take no notice whatsoever of the name Spillville and not even know that it refers to a small town in northern Iowa.
The famous Czech composer, in fact, along with his wife, six children, an aunt and a servant, spent the summer of 1893 in Spillville (pop. 400, mostly Bohemian farmers). It was Dvorak’s break from his teaching job in New York City. And he thought Spillville “an ideal place” where he wouldn’t mind spending the rest of his days.
He visited St. Paul in September of that year, and he wrote several chamber works. He also put the finishing touches on his Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”), which he had composed in New York, a work that the Minnesota Orchestra is playing for its subscription series this week.
Dvorak often complained that American music sounded German. He thought American composers should draw on their own national music. He incorporated some of that into his symphony, though the result reflects more the spirit of American folk music than actual folk tunes.
The concert Thursday morning at Orchestra Hall, with Osmo Vänskä presiding at the podium, offered a nice coherence on this point, opening as it did with Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” Copland shared Dvorak’s view of the importance — and vitality — of national idioms, in particular folk and jazz. As such, it was possible to imagine his “Lincoln Portrait,” with its unmistakably American sound, as a response to Dvorak’s request, though coming 50 years later.
The Copland performance was ideal. This is music that can sound a trifle pompous, unless it’s delivered with immaculate intonation — especially from the brasses and woodwinds — and no inflated rhetoric. This was the case Thursday morning. The narration, too, by retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, captured just the right tone of authenticity. The words, Copland wrote, “are meant to be read simply and directly, without a trace of exaggerated sentiment.”
The same can be said for Marni Hougham’s gorgeous English horn solo in the Dvorak symphony with its rich tone and natural, unsentimental phrasing. The entire performance was vigorous and carefully structured.
There was a magical moment in the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, played just before intermission. It came at the start of the slow second movement: a brief pause, a slight intake of breath, the lush opening notes taken so softly as to be barely audible. The impressive soloist, Esther Yoo, played with cool but expressive incisiveness. Her tone, compact and refined, with a fast, subtle vibrato, displayed an inspired kind of classicism that suits this emotive music perfectly.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.