The Sarasota Orchestra must be commended for its innovative programming and trendsetting initiative. Like the planet Earth being thought of as the only sphere to host life as we know it, this ensemble is probably not the only orchestra in America to give audiences this kind of ingenuity and novelty. But, for the life of me, I can’t name another.
Its most recent foray into the future took place just a couple of weeks ago, when Artistic Director Leif Bjaland took on the parts of narrator, conductor and historian, giving us a look at the life of Antonin Dvorak, the Czech composer, who, in the late 19th century, came to America and gave us a sense of our own classical music based on the Negro spiritual and the folk music of Native Americans.
Like a Ken Burns PBS special — but with live music — Bjaland brought us into the life and times of a period before skyscrapers and computers. He told us about Dvorak’s fascination with the steam engine and trains, the great plains of America and the loneliness one can feel in the hustle and bustle of a crowded city.
And, then, baritone Michael Redding took the stage and sang “Go Down Moses,” “Deep River” and several other poignant spirituals and hymns with the kind of ethereal, haunted, stunning sound that brings tears to one’s eyes and a clutch to one’s heart. His demeanor and dramatic expression spoke volumes.
Bjaland wove Dvorak’s story into a musical narrative that was evocative and illuminating. This compilation and chronicle prepared us for the music that was to come. And, after this brilliant account of the turn of the last century, blended with orchestral and vocal music, sound effects, historic photographs, videos and, finally, a sense of how and where Dvorak got his musical ideas, we heard an exciting, moving performance of the complete “New World Symphony.”
This is one of the most often-played symphonies. But, as many, many times as I’ve heard it, the Sarasota Orchestra and Bjaland’s Bernstein-like narration gave it new life and freshness.
This is, I hope, the future of great classical-music concerts. It’s innovation that enhances. And, it deserved the cheers that went beyond the standard Sarasota standing ovation.
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