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An exploration of musical roots

This weekend's BPO concerts constitute yet another eye- and ear-opener engineered in midstream, so to speak, by Music Director JoAnn Falletta. When first announced, the program consisted of Czech favorites by Smetana and Dvorak, excellent music but not especially inspired programming.

Quietly but with spectacular good judgment, Falletta has seized on the fact that this year is the 100th anniversary of both Dvorak's arrival in New York as director of the National Conservatory of Music, and of the premiere of his Symphony No. 9, "From the New World." Using these works as basic tools, she has transformed the program into a unique Dvorak tribute and exploration.

The concert opens with Dvorak's sparklingly energetic 1883 "Scherzo Capriccioso" and concludes with his universally known and loved 1893 "New World" Symphony.

But at its center is the Buffalo premiere of a work for actor and orchestra called "Hiawatha Melodrama." It was conceived and assembled by longtime musicologist, author and music entrepreneur Joseph Horowitz, with valuable contributions in visual imagery and American history from Peter Bogdanoff and Michael Beckerman.

When Dvorak arrived in America, Longfellow's 1855 poem "The Song of Hiawatha" was infused into the cultural fiber of the country. Dvorak's American sponsors hoped that, as a man of the European soil, he would help us to find in America the roots of a true American music. Aware of this expectation, Dvorak perceived that the fire and determination in Longfellow's "Hiawatha" and the soulfulness of black spirituals might serve this purpose.

Horowitz's "Hiawatha Melodrama" is not confined to a literal description of either the Hiawatha story or the composition of the "New World" Symphony. While encompassing those elements, it is also a great, sprawling poetic amalgam of recitation, song, orchestral music and projections of stunning American artworks that all add up to an almost impressionistic statement about America's spirit in the late 19th century.

Buffalo-born actor Paul Todaro is the excellent host and narrator in this presentation, with Kevin Deas, a baritone of room-filling warmth and expressiveness, singing spiritual excerpts and proclaiming some of the more fiery narrative lines. Especially interesting is the way Dvorak orchestral excerpts accompany the narration of Longfellow's text.

Falletta says that after reading "The Song of Hiawatha" and studying Horowitz's thoughts on Dvorak, she will never hear the "New World" Symphony the same way again. That statement was easy to believe while listening to the fresh drama, thrust and poetic insights she brought to the complete "New World" performance.

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Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

"New World Rediscovered" with JoAnn Falletta, conductor. Part of the Classics Series.

Friday morning and 8 p.m. todayAPR28 in Kleinhans Music Hall, Symphony Circle.

Tickets are $25-$72. Call 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.org.