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Dvorak on the Reservation



Sisseton, in the northeastern corner of South Dakota, sits within a Dakota Indian reservation called Sisseton Wahpeton. The population – 2,500 – is half Native American, half non-Native.

Last Monday night, Sisseton hosted the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra in a program, “Dvorak and America,” at the local high school auditorium. This multi-media production, which includes a “visual presentation” extrapolating the American accent of the New World Symphony, has been seen throughout the United States for a decade. Unique to South Dakota, however, was the participation of the Creekside Singers of the Pine Ridge Reservation (pictured above) in a symphonic composition by the Native-American composer Brent Michael Davids. Sisseton also produced the most eclectic audience I have ever seen at a symphonic concert. Both the very young and the very old were well represented, as was the local Dakota population.

Part of the NEH’s “Music Unwound” orchestral consortium, this singular adventure in cultural outreach was the latest installment in the South Dakota Symphony’s Lakota Music Project, which makes music for and with Native Americans. The Project’s touring program, comprising back-and-forth musical exchanges, has since 2009 been given nearly thirty times on six reservations. It has also commissioned new works from both Native and non-Native composers. Crucially, it is mutually conceived and implemented by the Symphony and its Native American partners.

As I have many times observed on this blog, the Dvorak topic is protean. His espousal of a future American concert idiom based on “Negro melodies” and Native American lore remains provocative and timely. The “Dvorak and America” program plays with particular pertinence in New York City, where it has been produced by both the New York Philharmonic and the late Brooklyn Philharmonic; a city of immigrants, New York took Dvorak to heart. If it ever makes it to Boston, “Dvorak and America” will powerfully recall a historic moment when New Englanders denounced Dvorak as a “negrophile” and shunned his influence and advice. In Fayetteville, presented by the North Carolina Symphony, “Dvorak and America” memorably connected with an African-American audience.

In Sisseton, “Dvorak and America” was doubly resonant. Dvorak’s sadness of the prairie, enshrined in the Largo of his great American symphony, instantly evoked the wide horizons directly at hand. The symphony’s many allusions to Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, highlighted by visual renderings including the Dance of Pau-Puk Keewis with its moccasin bells (Dvorak’s triangle), served to introduce an Indian reservation to the long-ago Indianists movement of which Dvorak was part.

How did the Native Americans in the room process the whirling, spinning dance at Hiawatha’s wedding feast? As Dvorak’s “Indian” mode makes no attempt to evoke actual Native American music, we undertook a necessary consideration of what anthropologists call “cultural appropriation.” Our resident anthropologist, Ronnie Theisz, has participated in the Lakota Music Project since its inception. He is an Austrian who upon earning a Ph. D. at NYU took a job on a South Dakota reservation and never looked back. On this occasion, Ronnie contributed a mini-tutorial on the structure and vocal techniques of Lakota song. He also contrasted the nineteenth century’s celebration of the “noble savage,” as in Longfellow and Dvorak, with such twentieth century Indianist kitsch as Victor Herbert’s “Dagger Dance” – as performed by the South Dakota Symphony; as appropriated by the Hamms Beer cartoon commercials I remember from my childhood. That beer commercial drew laughter – but no such depiction of “injun country” could conceivably be purveyed today.

Another participant was Chris Eagle Hawk, an honored elder of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, who eloquently described the role of music in Lakota culture, and the sanctity of the Black Hills.

The same South Dakota Symphony Dvorak program was given on subscription Saturday and Sunday in Sioux Falls (population 170,000). Not the least remarkable aspect of these three concerts was the caliber of the orchestra itself and of its conductor, Delta David Gier. He has led the South Dakota Symphony since 2004. For many years an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he has since raised two children in Sioux Falls. It was he who initiated the Lakota Music Project.

Gier’s reading of Dvorak’s Largo was the most affecting I have ever encountered. It was also the slowest, and in places the softest. His splendid English horn soloist, Jeffrey Paul, is South Dakota’s principal oboist. He also composes, conducts one of two South Dakota Symphony youth orchestras, and plays the electric guitar.

The current South Dakota Symphony season puts to shame a major American orchestra that resides in eastern Pennsylvania. There are no celebrity soloists, no Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky concertos. The season began with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, part of an ongoing Mahler cycle that now only lacks Nos. 8 and 10. Next season opens with John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. In fact, there is contemporary music on every Classics program save the annual semi-staged opera – Don Giovanni. Last season, it was Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

These enterprising repertoire choices are doubtless one reason the musicians of the South Dakota Symphony seem as motivated and engaged as any I have encountered among professional American orchestras. I had occasion to chat backstage with the principal double bass, Mario Chiarello. Mario is also the conductor of one of three Sioux Falls high school orchestras. He told me that after 9/11, his Lincoln High orchestra prepared Mozart’s Requiem in eleven days. He also said that Sioux Falls’ “Harmony” program, modeled on Venezuela’s El Sistema, in conjunction with a separate Suzuki-based program, is producing skilled young instrumentalists in such profusion that they will burst the seams of the city’s existing student symphonic ensembles. He counts 2,631 string players in the Sioux Falls public schools. Many are not native speakers of English.

My most memorable backstage exchange, however, was with Chris Eagle Hawk. He is a man whose very presence commands attention. He shared an axiom about listening. One should listen with one’s heart, he said, and only later process that with one’s brain. In the meantime, one’s mouth should remain shut. This is a lesson I have never learned. Onstage, during one of three post-concert discussions, I asked Chris what he thought of the New World Symphony. “Awesome,” he replied. Was he hearing it for the first time? I innocently inquired. Well, no – he first encountered Dvorak’s symphony in college long ago. This from a man who grew up in a tent and first spoke English at the age of seven.

At Sisseton we were greeted by David Flutes, chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Mayor Terry Jaspers, and Jane and John Rasmussen. Jane is director of the Sisseton Arts Council. She and her husband asked me to inscribe their copy of my book Classical Music in America: a History – which, moreover, they had evidently read. John said that racial tension in Sisseton had considerably abated over the past decade. One reason, he added, was the South Dakota Symphony’s Lakota Music Project.


  1. melanie bliss says

    Dear Joe–

    Thank you for coming to Sioux Falls and joining so wholeheartedly with Music Unwound. We greatly appreciate
    your most kind appraisal of your experience with our South Dakota Symphony. Wherever you sat, you had the same experience as we did in the mezzanine of the second half’s performance of Dvorak “New World”. In 30 years coming to the SD Symphony, it was the finest performance I have heard. Please come again soon, stay longer!!
    We appreciate your incredible insights. Most sincerely, Melanie Bliss

  2. Joseph,

    Thank you for your insightful post
    “Dvorak on the Reservation”.

    You – like the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra –
    have come to our small community and listen with
    your heart. We should all practice that art of listening.

    Your production “Dvorak and America” and the South Dakota
    Symphony Orchestra’s performance of it not only allowed us to listen
    in a new way to native and classical forms of music, it also
    opens us to listen to each other with our hearts.

    John Rasmussen

  3. Sharon Zettlemoyer says

    Thank you so much for bringing this wonderful program to Sisseton, SD. It’s not often that our students from surrounding schools get the opportunity to attend a concert that is both musically and culturally enriching. I brought my 6th grade band students from Wilmot to the concert on Monday. I myself enjoy Dvorak’s work, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for he students to hear music they aren’t accustomed to hearing, and also to see the magical even of a symphony being played live. My students thoroughly enjoyed the concert! They really liked that they got to hear about the Native American influences of this piece, and that there were so many different parts to the performance, not just the orchestra playing. Thank you again, on behalf of my students.

  4. This sounds great — shows how the way we hear “classic” work can be tremendously influenced by the context. Acknowledging that kitsch versions of Indian culture linger in our ears, even as our minds reject such cultural appropriations, is a path to listening that allows us to hear critically but still draw on deeply buried strains of memory. The energy of the Dvorak in American project is infectious. l

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