The world premiere of “Dvorak Jazz Dances” at the Czech Embassy September 21 proved that the classical composer’s still very cool and hot in his 170th year — celebrated throughout Washington in the Dvorak “Mutual Inspirations Festival.”
The imaginative, inventive, witty jazz piece, using Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances as a brilliant starting point, epitomizes the “Mutual Inspirations” theme of the festival that began on the Czech composer’s 170th birthday September 8 and ends on October 28, 2011, Czech National Day.
For the full schedule of the festival, check the website www.mutualinspirations.org, and also enjoy its trailer on youtube.
Local composer/alto saxophonist Charley Gerard created 11 dynamic and rhythmically compelling short jazz works based on Dvorak’s most famous dances, set to blues, African, Latin, even calypso and minuet rhythms.
Their titles are “silly puns,” Gerard commented, playing off the sounds of Antonin Dvorak’s name and nickname “Shack”: “Divorce Shack,” “Afrolantonin,” Calypslovonic,” “Like Sonny, Like Coltrane, Like Dvorak.”
The audience didn’t just like it, they whooped, yelped, bravoed each selection and each extraordinary musician of Washington Musica Viva: Carl Banner (piano), James King (bass), spectacular Syberen van Munster (guitar), and Lenny Robinson (drums).
“Dvorak Jazz Dances” will be performed again free at Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on October 5 at 6 PM. An audio visual recording will be posted later on www.kennedy-center.org.
After the Czech Embassy standing ovation, one audience member summed it up: “This music makes me feel it’s good to be alive.”
Another of many audience members urging the group to make a CD of the new work, was the Smithsonian’s Curator of American Music, John Edward Hasse, the architect of the Smithsonian’s hugely popular jazz program.
Hasse told me, “This is a contribution to the repertory. For me, it absolutely worked. If Dvorak were alive today, he’d be smiling …This combined European harmonies and melodies with African American rhythms, timbres, and improvisation.”
And that was one of Dvorak’s great aims when he came to America almost 120 years ago, where he wrote some of his best music in New York and Iowa. Dvorak once told the New York Herald, “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
One of the Czech master’s greatest, most noble and very American creations was, of course, the “New World Symphony” (Symphony No. 9 in E minor), which he composed in America’s honor.
That symphony had a great American honor when astronaut Neil Armstrong listened to it during the first moon landing. Another honor: about a thousand people heard it at the National Museum of the American Indian September 17 in the “Mutual Inspirations Festival.”
A few notes of that symphony were heard in “Dvorak Jazz Dances.” Gerard, who recently composed jazz pieces based on Vivaldi’s “Spring” section of “The Four Seasons,” and on a Mozart violin sonata, told me about his general approach to composing, “I have a very strong love of irony, and good taste and going over kind of to bad taste, and a bit of thumbing my nose at things.”
Big thumbs up from Czech Embassy cultural counselor Barbara Karpetova, who arranged the embassy’s commissioning the work for the festival. “I know the Slavonic Dances, and this was cool, and hot — It shows that even being 170 years old, you can still be hot.”
Most important, “It’s a new baby,” she told me, one of several new creations for the “Mutual Inspirations Festival.” Just one example, the musicians performed beside artworks inspired by Dvorak’s works and painted for the festival.
Karpetova said that the festival “gives such hope for artists. It shows that they create one work, and it’s not over — it inspires other works.”
“Dvorak Jazz Dances” is the epitome of an inspired work.
For more info: Mutual Inspirations Festival, www.mutualinspirations.org. Washington Musica Viva, www.dcmusicaviva.org, founder, executive director, pianist Carl Banner.