I was lucky as a child to grow up in quite a musical family – my parents actually met playing in an amateur orchestra. My mother played second oboe in that orchestra, and throughout my early years I remember her raving about one particular piece. That was Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, because, being second oboe, whenever it was programmed she played the cor anglais part in the second movement: that beautiful, world famous melody and perhaps the greatest cor anglais solo ever written.
To be honest, at first I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. Then, when I was about 10 years old, I heard the piece in full in a concert for the first time. I was completely bowled over – it was amazing! The second movement was fine; it is a nice melody, though to a 10 year old the rest of the movement seemed a bit long and tedious. But the other movements, the opening and the finale in particular, captivated me. They were so exciting – the melodies, the way the harmony changed, and the energy inside it all. From that moment onwards, it became one of my favourite pieces.
Throughout my teenage years, I listened to the piece a lot. Gradually, as I learnt more about music, I began to appreciate its subtleties, as well as the background to it. Although the symphony was written whilst Dvořák was in America, and certainly contains many American influences, it is still very Czech in character, and I found this successful combination of styles fascinating. I also learned to appreciate the second movement more, and realised that it wasn’t just ‘the tune from the Hovis advert’, but that it went much deeper, as an outpouring of Dvorák’s homesickness whilst in the States. The more I learnt about the piece, the more it grew on me.
Eventually, aged 18, I arrived in London to continue my studies. Part way through my first year as an undergraduate, whilst in a practice room slaving away over a Kreutzer study, my phone rang. It was somebody from a local amateur orchestra looking for extra violas for their forthcoming performance of Dvořák’s Ninth. “Was I available and would I come and play for £50?” I was over the moon: this was the first time I had ever been offered money to play in an orchestra, and I was being asked to play my favourite piece! I thought I’d finally made it. Without hesitation I said yes, went along, and had one of the best days of my life to that point. The quality of the orchestra didn’t matter, it was the music that made it worth my while.
Since then, I’ve realised that I hadn’t quite ‘made it’ that day; there was still quite a lot of work to do. I’ve played the ‘New World’ symphony a few times since and it remains one of my favourite pieces to play and listen to. I am very excited about performing it with Southbank Sinfonia and maestro Ashkenazy. Each time I play it, I find something new in the music and I’m certain this time will be no different.
Find out more about Duncan Anderson here.
Find out more about Southbank Sinfonia’s upcoming performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 with Vladimir Ashkenazy here.