Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Steven Mercurio, conductor
Chloë Hanslip, violin
Bedřich Smetana – Vltava, symphonic poem from the cycle Má vlast
Max Bruch – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1
Antonín Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”
Tonight’s concert features the two most famous and most frequently performed Czech works in combination with the popular Romantic violin concerto.
Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), the bicentenary of whose birth we mark this year, never heard any of the symphonic poems of his Má vlast (My Country). He wrote the first two, Vyšehrad and Vltava, almost concurrently, from the end of September to 8 December 1874, when he completed Vltava within a mere 19 days, now completely deaf. The following year, 1875, he wrote another two poems, Šárka and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields. Three years later he completed the work as a final six-part opus by adding Tábor and Blaník. He dedicated the cycle to the “royal city of Prague”, which he loved and where he had spent most of his life.
Má vlast as a complete cycle was given its first performance on Prague’s Žofín on 5 November 1882, involving an expanded orchestra from the Czech Opera conducted by Adolf Čech; it was a huge success. In future years the work became a unique symbol of national self-awareness. For their undisputed musical qualities the symphonic poems in Má vlast are an integral part of the repertoire of conductors and orchestras all over the world, with Vltava remaining the most popular of the cycle.
Of the three violin concertos by German composer and conductor Max Bruch (1838–1920) the best known is Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26. It was written in its original version in 1866 but, after the first performance of the work, Bruch revised it considerably and its definitive form was premiered in Bremen on 7 January 1868, with the composer standing on the conductor’s rostrum; the soloist was no less an artist than the celebrated Joseph Joachim, to whom the piece is also dedicated. The concerto quickly became extraordinarily popular, although the composer was somewhat disappointed that it enjoyed such unilateral admiration to the detriment of his other works.
The premiere of Antonín Dvořák’s (1841–1904) last Symphony No. 9 in E minor “From the New World”, Op. 95 was held in New York’s Carnegie Hall on 16 December 1893 and it proved to be the greatest triumph of the composer’s career to date. It was written concurrently with the String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 and String Quintet in E flat major, Op. 97 during the first year of Dvořák’s three-year period in the United States. He declared of these three works with their characteristic “American” tone: “… I know that I would never have written these pieces in this way if I had not seen America!”
Powerful impressions from his new environment, financial independence, the sense of adopting the role of an “ambassador” of Czech Music, and his ambition to prove he would not fall short of expectations – all these were essential elements of Dvořák’s existence in the first few months of his stay in America, when he was at the peak of his creative endeavours. The composer completed his Ninth Symphony, in which he expressed his nostalgia and love for his homeland, and his joy from his compositional work and from life itself, on 24 May 1893. In an international context the “New World Symphony” is Dvořák’s most performed work. The second movement Largo is now a hit worldwide and lives on in numerous arrangements to this day.