Music of America

A low reed lifts in a minor fourth. A chamber musician calls in the tone of a blues riff.

When he came to America in 1892, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák found beauty in Spirituals and field songs, Gaelic fiddle or an Oglala or Lakota melody from the plains.

He came to direct New York’s National Conservatory of Music, and he walked into a national controversy. He argued American music should grow from the country’s diverse roots.

Dvořák asked an insistent question, and as they perform his work on Friday the West Stockbridge Chamber Players will ask the same question — what it means to be American.

Clarinetist Catherine Hudgins says she has heard and felt that debate often since the presidential election in November, and she has created her annual spring concert with it in mind.

She curates the ensemble from musicians who perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for concerts two or three times a year, and she curates the program to respond to historical moments. This concert begins in the divided present.

In Dvořák’s time, a rift was growing between people holding to European roots and people who found creative life where Dvořák found it, in Back American and American Indian music and the immigrant life of New York.

He walked into the center of that debate. He found support, and he found bitter opposition. American musicians, composers and listeners wanted to define an American music, as the country wanted to define itself. And Hudgins finds that tension deeply timely today.

She follows his music into the 21st century with thoughtful and melodic contemporary works by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a Chickasaw composer who draws on flute and percussion, and Osvaldo Golijov, born in an Eastern European Jewish family in Argentina, who now lives in Massachusetts.

And she will open with string quartets: a soliloquy with clarinet by Pulitzer and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon, and a piece by Samuel Barber, an acclaimed 20th-century composer who lived and worked for 40 years with his partner, composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti.

“Many people may not have had a chance to hear Dvorak and Tate together,” she says, but it seems natural, after what Dvorak was asking for.”

Tate often composes for winds and rhythm, she says. The Players will perform Toklo (Two) for American Indian flute and clarinet, a work Tate wrote as a commission for R. Carlos Nakai, a musician of Navajo-Ute heritage, and one of the world’s premier performers on the American Indian flute.

The sound color and the composition draw Hudgins to the work. When she closes her eyes it transports her to the plains, she says, to tall grasses and a wide sky.

Following it, Golijov’s Lullaby and Doina move her to many places, with tones from Klezmer to South American music. He has lived in Argentina and Israel, and he is now a professor of music at Holy Cross in Worcester.

She has loved his work for many years, she says, and the works in the concert, in places  she feels a Romany influence. It reminds her of touring with the Venezuelan orchestra some years ago. Musicians from Romania would sit after the concerts sharing food and drink and play folk dances, faster and faster, until by the end they sped like a racing heartbeat.

Soliloquy, Hidgon’s composition, lends a thoughtful note. She is a well-known and powerful voice, Hudgins says. As a clarinetist, Hudgins knows her for her Blue Cathedral, a work Higdon wrote as a tribute to her mother, a clarinetist who died of cancer, and it is often played in American orchestras today.

Her work will open the concert, and then Hudgins will reach back to the 19th and 20th centuries with Dvořák and Barber.

Barber may be her favorite American composer, she says, and one of the loveliest passages he ever wrote contained in this quartet, in the second part, the adagio for strings. Toscanini called Barber’s work simple and beautiful, she says, and for her, Barber’s music has an indefinable, powerful American accent.

I talked with Cathy Hudgins for a highlight in Berkshire Magazine — my thanks to Anastasia Stanmeyer. The photo at the top shows composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. (Photo by Alan Rothstein, courtesy of Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate.) The West Stockbridge Players — Linda Toote on flute, Catherine Hudgins on clarinet, Sheila Fiekowsky and John Holland on violin, Daniel Getz on viola, Oliver Aldort on cello and Edwin Barker on double bass — will perform Friday at 6 p.m. in the 1854 Town Hall. For more information, visit weststockbridgehistory.org 

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