Music has the power to carry us through space and time. It’s a quality that has led so many of us to turn to our favorite pieces and performers during this period when we’re unable to have a direct artistic experience in the greater world. The participants in our 2020 Heifetz Virtual Institute carried this space and time travel metaphor even further, collaborating with one another across nine time zones through a sophisticated recording process developed by Artistic Director Nicholas Kitchen and our Multimedia Production team that allowed for dynamic and meaningful performances in the digital realm.
Including this remarkable collaboration between cellist Belle Ra in Dallas, Texas and Boston-based faculty pianist Dina Vainshtein, joining together to play the powerful first movement of the magnificent Cello Concerto in B minor by Antonin Dvořák.
That one of the great cello concertos ever composed was written by a man whose distaste for the instrument as a solo voice once led him to remark, “High up it sounds nasal, and low down it growls,” may seem incongruous. It seems Dvořák’s change of heart came during his time as Director of the National Conservatory in New York City. While there, he attended the New York Philharmonic premiere of the Second Cello Concerto in 1894 by Victor Herbert, one of the Conservatory faculty members, and who had been the principal cellist in the premiere of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony the year before. According to critic Philip Husher, Dvořák “enthusiastically applauded Herbert’s concerto, and he heard something in it that made him think, for the first time, that there was important music to be written for solo cello and orchestra. This concerto would prove to be the last major symphonic work of his career.”
The seed of the idea had already been planted by Dvořák’s close friend, Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan, who was considered to be among the greatest cellists of his time. He requested that the composer turn his talents towards a cello concerto, and when the time did in fact come, the piece was dedicated to Wihan (though it would be premiered by the English cellist Leo Stern).
Dvořák worked on the piece from November 1894 to February 1895, a time during which he was suffering from a severe case of homesickness. He had accepted the post of Director of the National Conservatory in 1892 for $15,000 a year — more than 25 times what he made at home in Prague — and made the most of the opportunity by immersing himself in African American and Native American musical traditions, integrating these influences into several of his most acclaimed works, including, the so-called “American” String Quartet and his Ninth Symphony, which he himself subtitled “From the New World.”
Having returned from his summer holiday in his native Bohemia in 1894, he received news that his sister-in-law Josefina Čermakova had fallen gravely ill. Decades earlier, he had fallen for Josefina, an aspiring sixteen-year-old actress to whom he gave piano lessons. He would end up marrying her sister, though it seems he still carried a torch for his first love.
So while this piece was written in America, the longing and the language is entirely from Dvořák’s Bohemian soul. As our student Belle Ra says in her introduction, “One thing that I love about this piece is the journey that it takes me on,” and she goes on to explain that she relates to the feeling of homesickness in the piece when performing it herself.
While our students were largely confined to their homes this summer, the idea of homesickness took on a new meaning – not for the locale where they grew up, but for their chosen homes in conservatories, among their colleagues and mentors. We hope our summer institute played a part in taking them on a journey back to those cherished places, where they could explore and express their artistry, and continue to develop as musicians and performers.
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