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ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Concert features music inspired by two very different love stories

October 12, 2018

For the October 20th concert of the Aiken Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Donald Portnoy has selected two major works that may be said to be inspired by two very different acts of devotion: Anton Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D Major.”

Lured by a substantial salary and perhaps some sense of adventure, Dvorak left his native Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, in 1892 to take up the directorship of the now-defunct National Conservatory of Music in New York. In the two and a half years he spent in this country, Dvorak came under the spell of what was to him a very different culture and geography.

Dvorak always reveled in new melodies. During his time in New York, one of his pupils, the African American baritone Harry Burleigh, sang Negro spirituals to the Czech composer upon his personal request. He also marveled at the “wide open spaces” of North America; Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 in the Czech community of Spillville in Iowa.

What came out of those experiences, both auditory and visual, was the composer’s ninth symphony, subtitled “From the New World.” Heralded from the time of its debut at Carnegie Hall in 1893 – it is said that Dvorak was compelled to stand and bow to the thunderous applause that greeted the end of each movement – the “New World Symphony” became his most popular work.

In particular, the principal melody of the second movement, marked “largo,” had a second life when in 1922, William Ames Fisher, a former pupil of Dvorak, added lyrics. The resulting song “Goin’ Home” has often been mistaken for a folk tune; but it was, in fact, a sophisticated European response to such traditional compositions.

Dvorak’s sojourn in the United States from 1892 to 1895 followed an equally triumphant visit to our shores by another musical giant, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who undertook a 25-day American tour in 1891, conducting his own works in various East Coast cities. Although never a man completely comfortable at the podium, Tchaikovsky learned that there were handsome fees to be earned by composers conducting their own works; and despite a disastrous sea voyage to New York – his wallet was stolen and he suffered from seasickness – Tchaikovsky was lionized in the New World. “I am petted, honored, and entertained here in every possible way,” he wrote to his nephew.

Although he felt affection for America, Tchaikovsky, unlike Dvorak, found no musical inspiration from his time in this country. Indeed, his one and only violin concerto, written in less than a month in 1878, was inspired not by a place but by a person.

That pivotal year, Tchaikovsky fled to a resort on Lake Geneva in Switzerland to avoid the aftermath of his disastrous marriage, an ill-fated experiment that he attempted in order to dispel rumors of his homosexuality. Anyone who remembers Richard Chamberlain’s performance in Ken Russell’s film “The Music Lovers” knows what a mistake that turned out to be!

The composer had a long history of infatuations with his male pupils. Some of these relationships had a physical component; some did not. Probably in the latter category was his devotion to Yosif Kotek, a young violinist that Tchaikovsky invited to join him in Switzerland. With Kotek’s encouragement and the young man’s practical knowledge of the solo instrument, Tchaikovsky wrote the “Violin Concerto in D Major” in very short order.

Their romantic and creative idyll was, however, not to last. Tchaikovsky would have liked to dedicate the work to Kotek, but he feared the gossip that might ensue. Later, when Kotek refused to perform the piece, which had initially garnered mixed reviews, that fact also added to the growing tension between the two.

Consider as well Tchaikovsky’s nickname for Kotek; it was “tomcat,” chosen in part because of the latter’s prolific womanizing. It must have been a matter of considerable frustration to the composer to be attracted to an individual whose principal orientation lay in another direction.

Still, for a time, Kotek permitted Tchaikovsky certain physical intimacies; and the composer confessed in a letter that at such moments, he could barely contain himself, “Passion rages within me with such unimaginable strength.” Some of that passion he transmuted into music.

Indeed, the concerto is noted for what one critic calls its “explosive violin gymnastics.”

For the ASO’s Oct. 20 concert, the soloist will be Paul Huang, who was born in Taiwan but earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Juilliard. He has played with some of the world’s major orchestras and performed successful solo recitals at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center; in fact, his first solo CD contains popular encore pieces. Huang currently plays a 1742 Guarneri violin on loan from the Stradivari Society of Chicago.

For more information on the concert, contact the Etherredge Center Box Office.

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