During the month of August 2009, the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Philharmonic conducted its annual workshop. It was the fourth of its kind and, as with previous workshops, concluded with a performance of various orchestral pieces to be performed at the Queen's Hall in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. It is usually 3 weeks of intense training and hard work with tutors from Venezuela, who are also part of the el sistema programme in their own country. Even though I have gotten a bit older and more mature, working with these tutors always seems to reaffirms my respect for the drive and passion that these musicians have for their vocation. Their determination for perfection can become a bit intimidating and keeps reminding me of when I first joined the orchestra when it was just the strings playing alone.
Such determination and commitment was again revealed when we had the task of performing the New World Symphony by Antonin Dvorak. An exceedingly difficult piece to coordinate, this piece required much time, energy, patience and discpline. While orchestral music usually is not that difficult for bass players, I think it was safe to say that all bass players, as well as the orchestra in general, had our work cut out for us but we were all up to the challenge.
After having received the music, I started to contemplate the significance of the title of this piece. I was not a history expert but I knew that the New World referred to the Americas (a la Christopher Columbus). However, I was never cognizant of why this symphony was given this title. I soon came to discover that this symphony was written by Dvorak in 1893 during his visit to the United States. His inspiration came from the Native-American music and African American spirituals. By creating this symphony, Dvorak attempted to represent the style and rhythm of the people of this "new" region. Dvorak even stated that "Negro melodies" ought to be considered as the foundation upon which American composers ought to be built, as they possess unique and varied themes.
Considering how music has evolved and how things have occurred, one may say that Dvorak might have been clairvoyant. The emergence of jazz and its performers (such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington etc.) as well as the later rise of the hip hop as dominant forces in popular culture at varying points in time serve to illustrate Dvorak's statement to be quite accurate. Popular music has undeniably been influenced significantly by the building blocks created by much of the "Negro melodies". Use of syncopation, which is common in jazz, appears to be present in the symphony, thus reaffirming Dvorak's apparent commitment to presenting the New World based on what he considers "Negro melodies".
However, while Dvorak attempts to represent the New World through his perspective, one cannot help but consider the extent he is truly able to represent the spirit of New World in its entirety. Granted that his influence is based primarily in the United States, there is still seems to be an element of outsider that attempts to define space that is not his. Being part of the late romantic era, Dvorak was one of the many composers who composed pieces that were intentionally nationalistic and reflected the folk culture of their respective countries. In composing "New World Symphony", Dvorak seems to be attempting to evoke the mood of indigenous persons in the United States as well as African immigrants. However, there is a fusion of these elements as well as a bit of a biased personal perspective, which seems to also be a reiteration of his own culture and nationality. This is in no way an attempt to discredit Dvorak's genius and complex orchestration of symphony of music. It is more an attempt to reconcile my own state as being part of this New World with the creation of a symphony that is written in the spirit of the New World while only presenting a very limited part of it. Caribbean people listening to this piece would not be able to connect with it for a multitude of reasons. Granted classical/baroque/romantic music would never gain the type of popularity in this region as would our own indigineous forms of music (calypso, reggae, ska, etc.), for the very least a bit of a connection would be able to better justify the representation of people of this hemisphere. We have learned a piece that is quite complex and intricate and also poses a challenge of some sort to almost every section of the orchestra. However, its substance appears not to be as complex, only showing a few aspects of an entire section of the world.
In spite of this lack of connection, I must say that it is still an amazing piece to be a part of. It is one of the few orchestral pieces I have seen that attempts to challenge the skill of the bass player from a technical perspective. It is a challenge that I embraced very willingly and one that I have overcome with great proficiency. One tutor stated that its one of, if not the most difficult piece to coordinate and conduct. Considering our performance at the end of the 3 week workshop, I must say that we have very well succeeded in doing what may have been considered improbable. I anxiously await the next symphony piece that we have to play.
This is just my perspective on pieces that I have interacted with. Others are welcome to give constructive feedback.