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Murder in Prague

New York
Gerald W. Lynch Theatre, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
09/12/2009 -  
Antonín Dvorák: I Will Bless Thy Holy Name – Quintet for Piano and Strings, Opus 81
Harry T. Burleigh: Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal – Spirituals

Terry Cook (bass-baritone), Sonyeon Lee, Caroline Stoessinger (piano), Afiara String Quartet: Valerie Li, Yuri Cho (violins), David Samuel (viola), Adrian Fung (cello)

Afiara String Quartet (© Gerald W. Lynch Theatre, John Jay College)

This supposed “Celebration of the Birthday & Legacy of Antonín Dvorák” was short, sporadically interesting, and had the most preposterous attempt at programming since a piano recital I attended in Vientiane, Laos.

One can forgive the lack of accents for the composer’s name, one can accept that no program notes were written for any of the music. One can even pardon the words about the musicians, which eliminated the names of the Afiara String Quartet (thank you, Mr. Google, for supplying them above), or any words about the finest musician of the program, pianist Sonyeon Lee.

These could be considered oversights. Not an oversight, though, was that the printed program was completely ignored, with no particular excuse. Yes, apparently contralto Yvonne Hatchett didn’t show up, so her songs by Duke Ellington were eliminated (with no explanation by the chatty hostess). Bass-baritone Terry Cook certainly did show up for songs by Burleigh (Dvorák’s great American friend), Dvorák himself, and Aaron Copland, the last of which he never bothered to sing (again no excuse).

At least, I thought, the Afiari String Quartet, Juilliard’s resident string quartet and quite an adventurous group, would begin with a pair of those rare lovely Cypresses by Dvorák. I had never heard them played live, but recordings are sensitive bagatelles.

That was the first disappointment of the evening. Violist David Samuel came out, blurted that they would change Cypresses for another work by a composer whose name was whispered, and they proceeded to play a stylized Gypsy movement for string quartet. What this had to do with the birthday composer (actually, Dvorák was born on September 8) I cannot garner. In the late 19th Century, most of the European gypsies were settled in the Carpathian Mountains and the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Dvorák’s Slavonic dances have as much to do with Romi people as Boris Gudonov is related to Traviata.

The full house was given an education lesson about Harry T. Burleigh, an Afro-American composer who was a close friend of Dvorák in his American period. His arrangements of “Negro spirituals” were used by Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, amongst others. Two of them–Deep River and Let My People Go–were given a rousing performance by Mr. Cook. He is obviously used to more difficult music, but his deep bass on the wonderful Deep River brought back a few memories of Paul Robeson.

The one song by Dvorák was taken from his Biblical Songs, which are heartfelt, sincere and fitting for 1880’s style churches.

Dvorák’s Piano Quintet rarely fails with any audience, and the Afriari String Quartet, after a lugubrious start, got into the entirely Slavic spirit of the work, and gave three jaunty dance movements. Pianist Sonyeon Lee led them on their way (they frequently had to adjust to her fast but precise playing). Where it counted, though, in the viola elegy of the second movement, this was a charming performance.

Unfortunately, so much had been canceled or re-arranged that the audience appeared confused whether this was the finale or a work before an intermission. It was the former. I went home, put on a CD of Renée Fleming singing Dvorák’s aria from Russalka, O Lovely Moon.

One measure from that, a sip of Slavic schnapps, and I could wish this wonderful composer a truly happy birthday.

The Afiara String Quartet

Harry Rolnick



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