2019-05-12 15:00 2019-05-12 17:00 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: Canada’s NAC Orchestra at Saffron Hall


Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra kicks off its 50th Anniversary European Tour in the United Kingdom led by renowned British Music Director Alexander Shelley.  UK audiences will recognize Alexander Shelley as the Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  Since becoming Music Director of the NAC Orchestra, Maclean‘s has credited Shelley for turning the orchestra “almost overnight… into one of the more audacious orchestras in North...

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Saffron Hall,Cambridge,United Kingdom
Sun, May 12, 2019


Ana Sokolović

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes…

Maurice RAVEL

Piano Concerto in G major

Born in Ciboure, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France, March 7, 1875
Died in Paris, December 28, 1937

Ravel toyed with writing a piano concerto as early as 1906, according to one source, and again in 1914, but the actual composition of what became the Piano Concerto in G was undertaken between 1929 and 1931, interspersed with work on the Concerto for Left Hand. The first performance was given in Paris by the Lamoureux Orchestra on January 14, 1932. Ravel had originally intended to play the piano part himself, but because of declining health, he granted the solo role to the concerto’s dedicatee, Marguerite Long, while he conducted. Ravel and Long then set out on a 20-city tour of Europe with the concerto; Long recorded it as well, with the Portuguese conductor Pedro de Freitas Branco. 

A number of elements combined to influence the style and form of the Concerto. Music of the Basques is immediately evident in the opening bars, for instance, where the exuberant piccolo theme bears strong relation to the folksong style of the Basques. The second theme, played first by the piano, suggests the influence of neighbouring Spain. Ravel had spent much time in the Basque country during the summer and autumn of 1929, when he began to write the Concerto. Ravel’s Basque hometown of Ciboure (a tiny seacoast town on the Bay of Biscay where France and Spain meet) honoured him the following year, strengthening the composer’s ties to his homeland.

The jazz influence is even more pronounced, stemming from Ravel’s tour throughout the United States in 1928. He visited the jazz clubs of New Orleans and Harlem and no doubt heard, among others, Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. He struck up a mutually admiring friendship with George Gershwin. The influence of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F can be felt in Ravel’s Concerto, especially in the first movement with its “blue” notes, jazz harmonies and rhythms.

Ravel professed that “the music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be light-hearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects.” In this respect, his Concerto in G succeeds splendidly, and Ravel liked to refer to it as a divertissement de luxe.

— Program notes by Robert Markow

Antonín Dvořák

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”

I. Adagio – Allegro molto
II. Largo
III. Scherzo: Molto vivace
IV. Allegro con fuoco

After the second movement, storms of applause resounded from all sides. Everyone present turned to look in the direction in which the conductor, Anton Seidl, was looking. At last, a sturdily-built man of medium height, straight as a fir tree from the forest whose music he so splendidly interprets, was discovered by the audience. From all over the hall there are cries of “Dvořák! Dvořák!” And while the composer is bowing, we have the opportunity to observe this poet of tone who is able to move the heart of so great an audience. […] Dr. Dvořák, hands trembling with emotion, indicates his thanks with Mr. Seidl, the orchestra and the audience, whereupon he disappears into the background while the Symphony continues.

So described the New York Herald’s critic of what occurred at the premiere of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, performed by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, on December 15, 1893. Based on this report, the piece appeared to be an unequivocal success, but this was not remotely the full picture. Even the work’s popularity today—it’s been regularly performed by orchestras around the world since the early 20th century—conceals a history and legacy that’s more complicated and uncomfortable, as musicologist Douglas Shadle incisively revealed in his recent historical study of the piece. As Jim Crow laws took hold in the late 19th century, the composition, performance, and initial reception of this symphony brought to a head many divisive issues regarding musical nationalism, aesthetics, and racial politics, the effects of which still resonate throughout American classical music culture today.

The “New World” Symphony was the first of several works Dvořák completed after he came to New York in 1892 to be artistic director and professor of composition at the National Conservatory of Music. The institution’s president, Jeannette Thurber, had invited him, believing that the Czech composer, then at the peak of his fame, could help guide the creation of an American “national” style of art music. As he considered what this could be, Dvořák learned about African American spirituals from one of the Conservatory’s Black students, Henry Thacker Burleigh, and was also given transcriptions of Indigenous melodies from the critic Henry Krehbiel. Eventually, he arrived at what he thought was the way forward. In a New York Herald interview published in May 1893, the composer declared that the music of the African diaspora “must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

Dvořák’s statement, appearing months before the symphony’s premiere, proved to be explosive, as many white critics and composers offered a wide gamut of responses, much of it revealing deeply racist attitudes. While a few agreed with him, some felt that diasporic African melodies were too trivial a music to warrant “elevation” to (European) art music; several declared that such music was not even genuinely American to begin with, while others said that “the best” of these melodies were written by white men like Stephen Foster. It did not occur to them that Black musicians and composers at the time might have their own perspectives to contribute to the conversation.

When Dvořák arrived in the States, Thurber gave him a copy of Henry Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, hoping he would first write an opera. But he wrote a four-movement symphony instead, which was perhaps more significant, given that late-19th century critics regarded it as the most prestigious type of orchestral composition, and despite its Germanic origins, upheld it as a mode of universal expression. Structurally, the “New World” Symphony unfolds conventionally, with fast outer movements (the first opens with a slow introduction) framing a slow movement and a scherzo and trio, both of which Dvořák noted were influenced by Longfellow’s poem (the latter depicting Hiawatha’s wedding feast). For the symphony’s thematic material, just as he drew on the shape, colour, and “spirit” of Czech folk music to create original tunes for his earlier works, the composer similarly saw diasporic African music as raw material for his inspiration and manipulation. (Dvořák did not regard his appropriation as problematic, being ignorant, as Shadle has said, of “th[is] music’s historical and emotional ties to Black bodies.”) In line with the venerated principle of thematic unity, musical motifs from the Allegro molto return in later movements, such as its first and closing themes appearing simultaneously at the second movement’s climax, with the Largo’s own haunting main melody; the scherzo also features reminiscences of the same themes; and in the finale, melodies from the first and second movements reappear in the coda, with the symphony closing on a blazing statement of the Allegro molto’s first theme.

A question lingers: Does the “New World” Symphony sound American? Some critics in Dvořák’s day were unconvinced, asserting that what the composer wrote sounded more Slavic or even Irish, comparisons not entirely devoid of racist sentiment in 19th-century America. Thus, as we today might continue to feel drawn to this work’s power, we must also grapple with the historical complexities of its creation and the legacy of its performance.

Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD


  • Conductor Alexander Shelley
  • jan-lisiecki-cr-christoph-koystlin
    Piano Jan Lisiecki
  • david-dq-lee
    Countertenor David DQ Lee
  • choir London Voices