Ain't Nuthin' But A Bulldog

'Tis not easy to believe but 'tis true. The sorrow of which I speak is not the cancellation of The Upright Citizens Brigade but rather the last "really big shoe" concert of the 98-99 Fort Wayne Philharmonic Season. If you don't attend this Saturday, you might have to wait until next fall to feast your ears on the mighty sound of a full orchestra. However, should you see fit to attend, you will not be disappointed as the orchestra pulls out all the stops (a little organ humor there… heh heh) and really goes to town. My sources hint that this concert might last until three in the morning and that laser lights, dancing bears and professional circus geeks have been hired to lend to the festive atmosphere. So leave your pet chicken at home.

One of the pieces to be played will be Rachmaninoff's (that is Rock-mon-in-ov) Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor. While this is his first published piano concerto (and his first published anything, thus bearing the might label of "Opus 1"), it is far from juvenile. The entire concerto is a massive experience in melancholy and loneliness. I'd go into greater detail but last year was the year of Rachmaninoff and it seemed like every other article I wrote was about this guy so I currently don't have much to say about him that I haven't already said. I guess I could make up some things but who would believe that Rocky enjoyed a really thick lemur gumbo during the Lenten season? I didn't think so.

The big number of the evening will be Te Deum by Antonin Dvorak (the "Dv" part is just like it looks… the rest is pronounced "vor-zhak"… or just mumble like the rest of us), a fellow born in 1841 in a small Bohemian village. His father was an innkeeper and a butcher (for some reason, I'm reminded of the movie Motel Hell but I'm trying not to think about it) and for a while, young Antonin was content to be an apprentice butcher. When not wielding sharp cutlery (he slices, he dices, he juliennes), Tony played the violin and the most neglected and misunderstood orchestral instrument, the Xyster-Maphone (or the viola, you decide). He was unable to resist the lure of the big city and soon set off for Prague. It didn't take long until he had caught the eye of Johanne Brahms (now there's a gruesome story that I won't go into… suffice it to say that the surgery went well and Brahms soon had his eye back) who encouraged the young Dvorak to compose and who championed the young lad around to the high-brow musical circles. I'm sure this was a big help to Dvorak's career because he couldn't have relied on his looks to open doors. I kid you not when I say that this man looked like a bulldog. Way! In addition to this, the man was a total freak, at least when compared to other composers, meaning that he was not especially disturbed, tormented, or generally kooky. Mr. Dvorak was one of the few composers who had a sunny disposition, was easy to get along with, and a general joy to have as a house guest. When he wasn't composing, he enjoyed raising pigeons, getting drunk, watching locomotives, and, um, well, he had six kids. I'll say no more. His happy personality shows in his music which is often upbeat, beautiful, and powerful. Tony had a great gift for creating fresh, lilting melodies, combining these against intense and often intriguing harmonies, thus making his music immediately popular then and now. Dvorak was also part of the nationalist movement that attempted to integrate folk songs with orchestral music. Of all who attempted this, Dvorak was one of the most successful (see his Slavonic Dances if you need further convincing… or else I'll send over my hired goons to emit noxious gases in your immediate vicinity).

At the height of his success in his home country (imaging having the power and influence of Ruth Buzzi but with 50% less sodium), he received an invitation to serve as the artistic director of the newly formed National Conservatory in New York City, America. Due to his national pride, family, fans and rich heritage, he turned down the offer. Then he found out that the annual salary (about $15,000) was twenty-five times what he was currently making and he set sail for the New World! He only spent three years here with much of that time in a Bohemian colony in Iowa (where they would all sit around the campfire singing Bohemian Rhapsody) but left due to an immense homesickness. Such longing, however, was the impetus to create many of his most famous works, the best known probably being his "From the New World" symphony whose main theme was used in the bizarre Ken Russell/Kathleen Turner film Crimes of Passion… I'll never look at Jiffypop pans the same way again. Drawing from the American folk music he heard around him, the symphony, with it's broad chords and feeling of openness, actually sounds like the work of an American composer!

So he returned home and spent the last decade or so of his life extremely content, raising pigeons and watching trains. In 1892 he wrote Te Deum (pronounced "tay day oom", try it with cheese!) as a thank-you to God for all the blessings that had been bestowed upon him. Throughout the ages, many composers from Berlioz to Verdi to Handel have written this piece which is based upon the Latin Te Deum Laudmaus (We Praise Thee, God). Dvorak's version is richly Romantic and deeply passionate with lush orchestral and choral designs. Yes, choral. For no extra charge, those attending this Saturday will get to not only see/hear the philharmonic but also have the extra treat of seeing/hearing the philharmonic chorus! According to Jeff Abbas, creator of the semi-official Dvorak web page (Click here), this piece remains one of Dvorak's most beloved pieces and is "considered by many to be one of the finest of the Te Deums." For just a few farthings, you too can enjoy this beloved Te Deum… just don't sit next to one of the hired goons.

Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman

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