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Savannah Music Festival Review: All Dvorak

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DVORAK is in my top two or three favorite classical composers. Though "classical" is really a misnomer, as the post-romantic Bohemian composer — literally Bohemian, as in from that region of today's Czech Republic — was so intertwined with folk idioms that he later explored American folk traditions in his works as well as incorporating those of his native country.

Introducing Tuesday night's scintillating "All Dvorak" bill at the gorgeous and evocative venue of Trinity United Methodist Church on Telfair Square, SMF director Rob Gibson explained the little-known groundbreaking influence of Antonin Dvorak on world music.

Near the turn of the 20th Century, classical music patron Jeanette Thurber wanted to start a European style National Conservatory of Music in the United States. She narrowed her choice for director to Dvorak and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

She eventually picked Dvorak. Already known for his aptitude with European folk elements, upon his arrival here Dvorak would go on to fully embrace American ragtime, blues, and spirituals — primarily the folk music of African Americans.

Indeed, one of Dvorak's early students, the African American violinist Will Marion Cook, would go on to mentor the great Duke Ellington.

Gibson then made a comparison between the European-style symphony orchestra and the American-style Big Band, as essentially both being nods to the same desire for lush, full orchestration under direction of a conductor of some type.

The brief history introduction helped the musical experience to follow, as listeners could hear the vernacular approach in Dvorak's passionately emotional and almost syncopated style of classical but not so classical music.

The famous Slavonic Dances were essayed here in four-hand piano form — as originally written — with Festival stalwarts Sebastian Knauer and Wu Han.

The program continued with a moving performance of Dvorak's 'Dumky' Piano Trio, with Wu Han on piano, Daniel Hope on violin, and Wu Han's husband and former Emerson Quartet veteran, David Finckel, doing his usual delightfully sensitive work on cello.

Hope here did some of his most sublime work, clearly enjoying the rich emotional palette of this composition, one which like most of Dvorak's work is extremely accessible to the modern ear.

The second portion of the program filled the smallish Trinity stage with strings, kicking off with Romantic Pieces for two violins and viola, and concluding with all hands on deck for the Dover Quarter in the seminal Piano Quintet No. 2, another of those great Dvorak works incorporating strong folk elements.

This was one of the classical shows recorded by the Savannah Music Festival for later broadcast, and I'm sure that recording will be magnificent. However, I found the sound within Trinity UMC for this show to be a bit too trebly, occasionally negating the warm nature of the throatier string instruments like cello and viola.

That said, that's a pretty minor criticism for an amazing show by literally several of the best classical musicians on the planet.
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