Having just spent a week taking part in a “Dvorak and America” festival presented by the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about how an orchestra can serve an entire state. The NCSO travels the length and breadth of North Carolina – more than 12,000 miles annually, offering more than 150 concerts. And it’s done that for a long time. In all four cities that hosted festival concerts, audiences strikingly evinced pride in the orchestra and an intimate sense of ownership. No one in Chicago would speak of “our very own Chicago Symphony.” In North Carolina, the orchestra serves not as a city’s international ambassador; rather, it invaluably buttresses a range of cultural communities.
The audience for “Dvorak and America” in Fayettville, on the campus of Fayettville State University, looked to be about fifty per cent African-American. I addressed a group of students earlier in the week, none of whom had previously heard the name “Dvorak.” A pre-concert recital featured members of the FSU music faculty in the Violin Sonatina and G-flat Humoresque. The first half of the concert was (in every venue) a multi-media exploration of Dvorak’s “American accent” in his New World Symphony. Dvorak’s espousal of “Negro melodies” was the central topic. The Fayettville audience hung on every word. The second half of the concert was the New World Symphony itself. Afterward, many stayed to offer intense expressions of gratitude.
In New Bern (population 30,000), near the coast, the orchestra’s seasonal series is ever popular. I have rarely seen a more eager audience. I observed people listening to the New World Symphony with eyes closed, their faces aglow with appreciation. The venue was a large conference room with vivid acoustics; it sat about 800.
In Raleigh, the concert took place Friday at noon. The hall was full to capacity, including two groups of high school students both of which had travelled for several hours. Their teachers had been participants in a 2010 “Dvorak and America” Teacher-Training Institute hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony. Kevin Deas, the eminent African-American bass-baritone, frequently partners my “Dvorak and America” presentations. At Raleigh, Kevin and I offered a “Harry Burleigh Show” for the visiting students at 10:45 in the morning.
In Chapel Hill, on the campus of the University of North Carolina, there was both an orchestral concert and an ancillary event featuring chamber music, and Burleigh songs and spirituals.
The orchestra itself, a spirited and disciplined group, undertook this typical week of travel and performance without apparent fatigue. The music director, Grant Llewellyn, happens to be Welsh and yet is a fit. It matters that the pleasure he takes in the orchestra’s unusual mission is at all times palpable. He likes people. He gravitates to students. The message that he and the musicians convey is “We’re happy to be here.” The orchestra’s unusual mandate, which could prove a burden, instead functions as a beacon: it focuses and inspires the institution.
The NSSO “Dvorak and America” events were part of a $300,000 National Endowment for the Humanities project called “Music Unwound.” NEH funds paid for free student tickets, busses for school groups, and teaching materials – as well as the extra personnel (host David Hartmann, video artist Peter Bogadnoff, myself as producer/writer) and technical requirements (screens, stand-lights) the concerts demanded. The project next travels to the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra (where it’s partnered by an elementary school and four high schools) and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (where the partners include an art museum). Few Americans have any idea what the NEH does. (Mitt Romney favors its termination.) Would that more orchestras undertook a humanities mandate, linking to literature, film, visual art, and history; and to high schools, universities, and museums. The NEH is there to help – for now.