BRSO concert focuses on facets of America

Thursday’s Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra concert at the River Center Theatre followed an American theme. The evening’s selections, however, weren’t necessarily composed by Americans.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorák wrote his Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”) in 1893, during his three-year stay in the United States. In many ways the symphony is thoroughly European, Bohemian and Romantic, but the influence of American music upon the work is also clear.

Conductor Timothy Muffitt led the orchestra through Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 in the concert’s second half. The music’s mix of European Romanticism and orchestral sophistication with Dvorák’s plaintive, spiritual-inspired melody yields the best of both worlds. It’s also stirring music, a quality that Muffitt and the Baton Rouge Symphony always seem prepared to express.

African-American influence in the symphony is especially clear in its first movement. The composer handily shifts the movement’s spiritual-inspired melody from instrument to instrument, section to section, from major to minor key and, of course, soft to loud.

The nostalgic melody in Symphony No. 9’s quieter, slower second movement also suggests American music, but more the songs of Stephen Foster, which were the pop songs of their day, than something as profound as a spiritual. Muffitt and the symphony players still performed the music with gravitas worthy of the concert hall.

From one ninth symphony to another, the third movement of Dvorák’s Ninth, a dramatic scherzo, likely is more inspired by the composer’s homeland and his Germanic predecessor, Beethoven, especially the edgy second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, than anything from America.

Dvorák created a bombastic concluding movement for his Ninth Symphony, courtesy in large part to a mighty main theme played by horns and trumpets. The movement occupies a justifiably recognizable spot in the symphonic repertoire and Muffitt’s interpretation effectively exploited the music’s big buildups, tension and suspense.

The orchestra performed music by two American composers during the concert’s first half, Samuel Barber’s “First Essay for Orchestra,” Op. 12, and Brian Gaber’s “Ancestral Waters.”

Barber’s “First Essay,” a piece of much solemnity, lived up to the brevity suggested by its title. Despite the work’s inclusion of some Aaron Copland-esque brass, a dark, heavy atmosphere dominated the piece.

Thursday’s guest artist, Memphis mezzo-soprano Allison Sanders, joined the orchestra for Gaber’s “Ancestral Waters,” a work that mixed conventional classical and Romantic styles with American gospel and jazz.

Sanders, singing with dark, velvety tone, appeared in the three-movement work’s deepest, loveliest sections. She also hummed for the second movement, “Prayer.” But a sheet music-reading jazz trio assembled for the performance, featuring electric guitar, upright acoustic bass and a drum set, was underwhelming.