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Cold Mountain, hot music
The Delaware Symphony Orchestra presents the world première of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain Suite
After three years without a season of full orchestra concerts, on September 23, David Amado and the Delaware Symphony got back to business. At Wilmington’s Grand Opera House, they presented three strongly played, deeply felt works by two starry composers: 19th-century Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) and the very contemporary Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962).
Titled Made in America (referencing the origin of two of the evening’s offerings), the concert was built around the world premiere of Higdon’s eloquent Cold Mountain Suite. First a 1997 novel by Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain has a distinguished artistic trajectory. In 2003, Anthony Minghella made an award-winning film, and in 2015, Higdon used it as the basis for her first opera (libretto by Gene Scheer), which won the prestigious International Opera Award (Higdon was the first American to do so) and became one of the highest-selling productions in Opera Philadelphia’s history.
A heartfelt reading
Among her many honors, Higdon has a Pulitzer Prize and three Grammy awards, and Cold Mountain Suite is the latest work in a remarkable compositional career. The Philadelphia composer notes that this subject “felt very personal because I spent my formative years in East Tennessee, not too far from the actual Cold Mountain,” and she challenged herself to musically interpret the emotional arc of the story without words or images.
Paradoxically both restrained and intense, Cold Mountain Suite amply succeeds in recreating the conflicting emotions of its source material. It opens and closes with thick orchestral clouds that mirror the intensity of her opera’s dense and stormy passages. And midway through the 15-minute work, Higdon has written a midsection replete with the Coplandesque lyricism that was a highlight of her operatic writing, with passages for solo players (including a mesmeric xylophone) that come forward and retreat above a cushion of plush strings.
The work was commissioned by a consortium of 37 American orchestras led by New Music for America, and over its upcoming performance life it will be played by 34 of them. As lead commissioner, Delaware Symphony was awarded the premiere, and Amado and the orchestra gave an excellent heartfelt reading, with Higdon in the audience.
Cold Mountain Suite was bookended by the orchestra’s vibrant interpretations of two seminal, highly emotional works by Czech composer Antonin Dvořák. The concert opened joyously with three of his 16 Slavonic Dances (Nos. 1, 3, and 8 from Op. 46), paving the way for the final work on the program, the Symphony No. 9 in E minor.
In 1892, Dvořák came to New York to establish a music conservatory, and amazingly, in that same year he also wrote this major work, his ninth symphony. He subtitled it “From the New World,” citing its place of origin, but it has come to be called the New World Symphony, an embracing overall evocation of America.
Dvořák amalgamates both his Bohemian heritage and his musical delight in influences he found here to create a memorable and much-loved work. Throughout its four stunning and varied movements are evocations of folk song tradition and Native and African American music. But the composer employs no actual musical “quotes” from existing works, creating his own aural world. And in a surprising musical turn, the English horn theme of the symphony’s second movement—an exquisite Largo—was so reminiscent of an American spiritual that a student of Dvořák actually turned it into one.
Starting a celebratory year
As well as celebrating a return to full onstage orchestra and this world premiere, the performance also reinstated the Delaware Symphony’s touring initiative with a concert presented in Lewes, Delaware. And it also kicked off a celebratory year honoring David Amado’s 20th season as music director. At the Wilmington concert I attended, Amado, a Philadelphia native and two-decade Wilmington resident, conducted with his usual precision, energy, and delight, and the orchestra responded in turn. It was a lively start to the Delaware Symphony’s 117th season.
What, When, Where
Made in America. Jennifer Higdon, Cold Mountain Suite; Antonin Dvořák, Slavonic Dances (Nos. 1, 3, 8) and Symphony No. 9, Op. 95 in E minor, From the New World. Conducted by David Amado. Delaware Symphony Orchestra. $10-$85. September 23, 2022, at Copeland Hall of the Grand Opera House, 818 N. Market Street, Wilmington, DE. (302) 656-7442 or delawaresymphony.org.
Masks and proof of Covid-19 vaccination are not required.
The Grand’s Copeland Hall is wheelchair-accessible, and assistive listening devices are available.
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