Classical Notes: OSO enters a brave new world

Okanagan Symphony's season opener featured iconic pieces by Jean Sibelius (Finland) and Antonin Dvořák (Czechoslovakia).

At their season opener, the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to horn player Laurie Henderson who died in June. As is traditional when an orchestra loses one of its own, the piece performed was Edward Elgar’s very moving Nimrod Variation.

Sunday’s concert, titled From The New World.featured iconic pieces by Jean Sibelius (Finland) and Antonin Dvořák (Czechoslovakia).

The evening started with O Canada, and what better way to illustrate the concert title than with “. . . true north strong and free!”

Sibelius’ Finlandia followed, one of the truly great symphonic poems. That opening brass section – dark and cold, and underpinned by drumming –  sends shivers up your spine.

This often violent music recalls Finland’s national struggles. But towards the end of the piece the woodwinds introduce Finlandia Hymn, which has become Finland’s unofficial national anthem.

The first half finished with Sibelius’ Violin Concerto – the only concerto he ever wrote.

Scheduled to perform the premiere was virtuoso Willy Burmester, but he was replaced, and this initial version, with Sibelius conducting, was a disaster due to the difficulty of the violin part. Barely finished in time for the event, the soloist had little time to prepare. Sibelius refused publication and made substantial changes.

But the piece fell into obscurity until 1991, when Sibelius’ heirs allowed a live performance and recording. Even now much of the violin part is highly virtuosic. The revision still requires high technical skill, superbly given here by world class violinist Martin Beaver.

Unusually for a first movement, the extended cadenza (soloist playing without the orchestra) has the task of developing the first theme.

But without doubt the highlight for the evening was Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World, known as the New World Symphony. It’s one of the most well known symphonies ever, and needs no description from me.

Composed in the U.S. while he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, Dvořák was inspired by “the American wide open spaces” and was also interested in African-American spirituals.

“I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies,” said Dvořák. “These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them”.

At the Carnegie Hall premiere, the end of every movement brought thunderous applause. Certainly the greatest public triumph of Dvořák’s career.

Neil Armstrong took a recording on the Apollo 11 mission (the first moon landing) in 1969.

And in 1973, Hovis bread made a very moving TV commercial, Boy on Bike, directed by Ridley Scott. He used the slow movement of New World Symphony, arranged for brass. It became Britain’s favourite advertisement of all time, and you’ll find the three classical Hovis commercials on You Tube.  (You might need a tissue).

Jim Elderton reviews the Okanagan Symphony for The Morning Star in Vernon, B.C.