In my very first review of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra for Metro Pulse in 2007, I posed the question: "What is it that makes the music of American composers characteristically ‘American?'" I must admit, five seasons later, that the question is probably unanswerable—if not moot—unless you entertain the simple concept that American composers invariably reveal something about the American experience, whether they do so intentionally or unconsciously. The KSO's pair of concerts this weekend, although not specifically billed as American music at all, contain three works that should add considerable fuel to the discussion: Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World"), Four Dance Episodes from Aaron Copland's Rodeo, and the world premiere of Theodore Wiprud's Violin Concerto (Katrina).
Of course, Antonin Dvorák was Czech, not American. Yet, as a European who was drawn to indigenous folk music for inspiration, he relished the opportunity to spend time in the United States and explore "native" music in whatever form he might discover. His New World Symphony, composed during his 1892-95 stay in the U.S. and premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1893, allowed him to inject the flavor of Indian dances and Negro spirituals into what is essentially European fin de siècle Romanticism.
On the other hand, Aaron Copland's 1942 score for the ballet Rodeo for choreographer Agnes de Mille makes no attempt at musical impressionism. Instead, Copland sought to match the realism of de Mille's choreography by blatantly incorporating specific folk tunes directly into the score. Among the four episodes in this Copland arranged concert version—"Buckaroo Holiday," "Corral Nocturne," "Saturday Night Waltz," and "Hoe-Down"—one can hear traditional songs that had just appeared in collections, notably Alan Lomax's Our Singing Country (1941). Ironically, it is the ubiquitous themes from Copland's score, not the original songs, that have subsequently flavored our own media-derived impressions of the American cowboy west.
Of huge importance to the theme of "American" music on the program is the presence of the world premiere of Theodore Wiprud's Violin Concerto (Katrina). Wiprud, currently director of education at the New York Philharmonic and the host of that orchestra's Young People's Concerts, has written the work for violinist Ittai Shapira, who will be the soloist.
Shapira became acquainted with Wiprud's music online and subsequently asked the composer if he would consider writing a violin concerto for him. After months of e-mails, phone calls, and meetings over coffee, a theme slowly emerged for the pair—the American tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
"I don't recall which of us thought of it first," Wiprud says. "But the musical side of the Katrina story is so compelling—the richness of the whole Delta region musically, and the impact the flood had on whole communities of musicians. It moved us both tremendously as we began to look into it."
In much the same way as Copland brought specific songs into Rodeo, Wiprud has incorporated a backbone of instantly recognizable regional musical styles into his three movement work. "In this concerto, I think it will be immediately obvious that I am referencing specific styles—lifting gestures wholesale, in fact, especially in the first movement," he says.
"Dvorák did something similar," Wiprud offers. "But while he absorbed spirituals and Native American music into his Bohemian style … I throw diverse styles, riffs, and pop music gestures into a maelstrom like so much flotsam and jetsam in the memory of a disaster survivor."
The composer has tried to take advantage of Shapira's individual sound, which he describes as "both penetrating and melting [with] astonishing agility and speed, especially in the higher registers." However, the two collaborators have kept the intent of the piece upfront, scrupulously avoiding virtuosity for its own sake.
Wiprud has given instrumental color an important role throughout, with waves of percussion washing over the soloist in the first movement, "Les Bons Temps." And in the second movement, "Acadiana"—harmonicas. "The harmonicas are there to suggest a sort of dream-time accordion … to create a wash of squeezebox sound."
"It's humbling," Wiprud concludes, "to hear the piece premiered in a city that has known its share of Katrina survivors and refugees. I hope my musical reaction to the story, the ongoing reality, finds some resonance with the experience of Knoxville."