With the notable Black American baritone Dashon Burton as vocal soloist, Sonoma County’s Valley of the Moon Festival presented Collaboration as a virtual concert on July 22. The hour-long chamber recital explores the remarkable and too-little-known connections between the Czech Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), African-American composer/baritone Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866–1949), and Dvořák’s folk-influenced friend, Leoš Janáček (1854–1928). The concert mixed four of Burleigh’s most famous spirituals and Dvořák’s 10 Biblical Songs (1894), performed by Burton and pianist Renana Gutman, with solo and two-piano pieces by the two Czechs, performed by Gutman and Audrey Vardanega.
As explained in part in an invaluable short prerecorded lecture with The New Yorker music critic and author Alex Ross and a conversation between soprano/conductor Christine Brandes and Burton, Burleigh began studying at New York’s National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1892, the same year that Dvořák arrived to direct the Conservatory. Dvořák, who was lured to America by a huge salary, was invited in the hope that his influence would help jumpstart an authentic American national music experience. What no one expected, including the Conservatory’s integration-minded patron, Jeanette Thurber, was that Burleigh, who worked as a handyman at the Conservatory while playing double bass in the Conservatory orchestra and continuing to sing in churches and synagogues, would strike up a mentoring friendship with Dvořák and play a major role in the music the Czech composed during his three increasingly homesick years in the New World.
“I sang our Negro songs for [Dvořák] very often, and before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the spirit of the old spirituals,” Burleigh once said. Under Burleigh’s influence, Dvořák told The New York Herald’s James Creeman in May, 1893, “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” This influence manifested most strongly in Dvořák’s great Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World,” 1893) and “American Quartet,” aka String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 (1893). Some of the solemnity embodied in some of Burleigh’s most famous art song spirituals, including “Deep River,” can also be heard in Dvořák’s far more Czech-inspired 10 Biblical Songs, Op. 99, inspired by the death of his friend, conductor Hans von Bülow and the imminent death of his father.
These historical discussions are as remarkable as the music itself. Despite encountering significant financial and racial obstacles, Burleigh sang in both Christian and Jewish places of worship as he exercised a profound influence on the course of American music. It was not only Dvořák that he mentored; Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson also benefited from working with him. The more I read about Burleigh, the more I hope that more of his art songs will receive performances as notable as those of his spirituals.
Unfortunately, the virtual recital platform has its limitations. This particular concert suffers equally from the sub-CD sound of YouTube and the unfortunate staging choices of Arium TV director/editor Christos Vayenas. While the latter may have been influenced by space constraints, they are nonetheless lamentable. Never are Burton and accompanist Gutman shown together; rather, Burton appears alone in a corner, singing in a sonically dead space between a bookshelf and a wall covered with a unicorn tapestry, while Gutman plays a period piano farther out in the room, where the microphone captures more of the instrument’s resonance.
Not only is Burton not in ideal voice — a warble surfaces frequently during softer passages, and there are numerous instances of breaks and hoarseness — but he is totally sabotaged by acoustic that robs his instrument of bloom. The contrast with his recent performance at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, which took place in a resonant concert environment, is vast. Where the Norfolk recital gives us a fair sense of how beautifully his voice opens in a live acoustic, and how much that acoustic is essential to the emotional impact of his voice, Vayenas’s choices produce a sonically flat performance that receives no help from Burton’s reverence and Gutman’s very personal but hardly made-for-close-up facial expressions. While the low notes are consistently gorgeous, only in a small portion of Burleigh’s “Give Me Jesus” do we begin to get a sense of the magnificence of Burton’s artistry when he sings full out with feeling.
Listening to this recital, I could not help but conduct a YouTube search for similar performances by Anderson and others. Anderson’s “My Lord, What a Morning,” for example, shows her at her touching best, her innate dignity co-mingled with fetching sweetness and vulnerability. The song, which she first recorded in 1924, at the age of 27, later became the title of her autobiography, which was published 32 years later. Where Anderson’s performance pulls you in, Burton’s equally dignified and respectful rendition, at least in this recital, seems rather plodding. Ditto for the first nine of the Biblical Songs.
Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in A-flat Major, Op. 72, No. 8, performed by both pianists, and three selections from Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, performed by Vardanega, round out the program. Although the latter’s harmonies are the most interesting, they sounded far too tame, pretty, and civilized. These pieces, too, are better appreciated in more lively environments.
Correction: The article, as originally published, incorrectly identified Boby Borisov as the production’s audio engineer. We regret the error.