The Palm Beach Symphony closed out its 48th season in April with a stunning concert that paired Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. In a welcome gesture to the underrated idiom of American classical music, the concert began with the amuse-bouche of William Schuman’s New England Triptych.
The Palm Beach Symphony has come a long way. Only a few seasons ago, its mailing list was limited to just two thousand people, with performances given in people’s living rooms. The dynamic executive leadership of CEO David McClymont, the appointment of longtime Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz as artistic and music director, and a judicious move to the capacious Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in nearby West Palm Beach, have raised the Palm Beach Symphony’s profile considerably. So, too, have livestream broadcasts of its events. Its 2021 holiday concert, broadcast on television, drew 1.2 million viewers. Their mailing list now exceeds 50,000 subscribers, with outreach to schools and other local community institutions multiplying at a seemingly exponential rate. In contrast with so many American orchestras that are contracting their offerings or even disappearing, Palm Beach’s orchestra plans to increase its offerings next season by 20% and will take on many of the most demanding works in the repertoire. In the arts, as with many other matters, Florida is taking a national lead.
It is hard to imagine a more complex piece than Korngold’s Violin Concerto. A highlight of the current season, it stands on the cusp of classical music’s transformation from an art form confined to the concert hall, into a multimedia concept. Classically trained as a child prodigy in Vienna, where he was mentored by Gustav Mahler and praised by Richard Strauss, Korngold entered early adulthood just as film became Western culture’s major expressive form. Forced to flee Nazi Europe because of his Jewish origins, he readily adapted to Hollywood, where he produced 16 film scores before a late-life return to classical music, a move he made to disprove critics who contended that ‘serious’ composers who made film music had betrayed their principles.
Just what classical music had become was an open question in 1945. A musical avant-garde whose tenets remain current in our times believed that the lush romanticism of Korngold’s heritage was an artifact of a broken European civilization that had delivered catastrophe, dictatorship, world wars, and genocide. Ironically, it was Hollywood, derided by the avant-garde and cultural conservatives alike, that helped Korngold preserve the tradition. During the Golden Age of Hollywood at least, classical music was able to survive and thrive in the movies. Korngold’s fellow refugee composer, Max Steiner, composed three hundred film scores, including the score for the iconic movie Casablanca, and won three Academy Awards. As the American composer and conductor John Williams put it, citing Korngold as a major influence, “if it weren’t for the movies, no one would be able to write this kind of music anymore.”
Suggested by the émigré violinist Bronisław Huberman, the 25-minute concerto’s most recognizable themes derive from Korngold’s film work in his fruitful period from 1936 to 1939. The films he scored in those years, which came after the composer wrote the music for Michael Curtiz’s celebrated The Adventures of Robin Hood (the project that Korngold credited with saving his life by keeping him in America), were well cast but far from outstanding. The concerto’s first moderato nobile movement opens with a violin solo taken from the score to William Dieterle’s indifferently received Another Dawn (1937), a love story of self-sacrifice set in a remote outpost of the British Empire. As the first movement develops in cohesion with the orchestra, it incorporates the love theme from Dieterle’s Juarez (1939), a maudlin retelling of the conflict between the ill-fated Habsburg Emperor Maximilian of Mexico and the democratic rebel Benito Juárez, who overthrew the foreign monarch. The second ‘Romance’ movement is built around thematic music from Korngold’s score to Mervyn LeRoy’s Anthony Adverse (1936), the story of a foundling who comes of age in Napoleonic Europe. Most challenging of all is the third allegro assai vivace movement, which demands virtuoso solo playing to themes from the score to The Prince and the Pauper, a 1937 William Keighley film based upon Mark Twain’s eponymous novel.
The concerto’s solo part was so difficult that Korngold wondered if it could be played at all. Jascha Heifetz was up for the challenge and performed its premiere, in St. Louis, Missouri, in February 1947. It made local musical history, receiving the loudest ovation ever known in that city. The success it attained was so extraordinary that Korngold’s reputation was defined by the concerto and his film scores. To his immense frustration, the rest of his work received little notice until after his death, after which it ironically became the violin concerto that was underplayed.
In the Japanese-American violinist Midori’s virtuosic performance, the solo part had an ethereal quality, sometimes aggressively well-matched to the orchestra under Schwarz’s firm but lucid hand, but sometimes a touch too quiet to be fully heard in the capacious Kravis Center.
Preceded by Schuman’s New England Triptych, a suite of three orchestral pieces based on hymns by the 18th-century American composer William Billings, the contrast allowed for a contemplation of the early national period before diving into America’s glorious mid-20th century global preeminence. Schuman, who held major administrative and academic posts in the music world in addition to his celebrated career as a composer, was writing in 1956, at the very height of American confidence. He looked back reflectively on Billings’ hymns, starting with “Be Glad Then, America,” which recalls tunes of the revolutionary era, and then proceeded with “When Jesus Wept” and the final, more martial piece “Chester,” originally a chorale with music that became the theme of the Continental Army. The Symphony delivered each piece with carefully weighted sensitivity and let loose beautifully for Schuman’s excited orchestral depictions of the nation’s emergence. The work’s world premiere, which was performed by the University of Miami’s symphony in the year of its composition, presaged Florida’s burgeoning artistic renaissance today.The program concluded with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, a work he composed in 1889 to celebrate his election to the Bohemian Academy of Arts and Sciences. The festive occasion called for a bright, effusive, and at times airy idiom adapting Czech national folk themes with the occasionally interwoven figure of an academic march. Its marked contrast from Dvořák’s earlier, stormier symphonies poses a strong challenge. The Palm Beach Symphony’s strong string section met it full on and played in fine relief under Maestro Schwarz’s masterful direction.