Three distinctly different compositions, all of them firmly American but with European roots, make up the Sarasota Orchestra's sixth Masterworks Series concert.
The overall program is an exploration of what American music meant "in that sort of wide, general period of time from the late 19th to the early part of the 20th century," said guest conductor Andrew Grams, who will conduct Fine's Toccata Concertante, Gershwin's Concerto in F and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 (New World Symphony) next weekend.
The New World Symphony is the earliest work on the program, written in 1893 by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak while he was director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. It is the work "of a European working with American material and yet in a European idiom," said Grams.
The New World Symphony is a standard part of the classical repertoire that allows musicians, conductor and audience alike to discover new layers of meaning.
"It's one of those old friends that you know so well," said Grams, 35, who was assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 2004-2007. "Each time I go to a different orchestra with the Dvorak Nine or any other standard, new layers of meaning are found in how the musicians and I converse, how we play with each other, how I suggest something to them or they give something to me. It's that element that drives me to keep doing things over and over again."
Gershwin's 1925 concerto marks the midpoint of the historical range of the program. Filled with blues and jazz elements, the work yet follows the traditional European form of a concerto.
Soloist William Wolfram will perform the Gershwin piece, which he described as "a wonderful piece, a great piece of music, with jazz elements, great melodic elements, a lot of energy."
Although the very American Gershwin work takes the traditional classical form of a concerto, that's of only passing interest to Wolfram, a Juilliard graduate who has performed with orchestras around the world.
"I've never believed that it actually helps your interpretation to know everything about the composer and the work and the context," Wolfram said. "We're always taught that that's what you've gotta do. But in my entire life, I've never witnessed any real connection between interesting intellectual criteria and the ability to put across a piece of music. ... How this Gershwin will be played, whether it's in the context of being European based, not being completely American, having roots in the European form, that's nice and it has nothing to do with how it's performed."
That's not to say that Wolfram ignores the biography of the composer and the historical context of the work. But for him, it's merely information.
"I've always had this ax to grind. Very often, the most intellectual people, the people who have the most to bring to the table with information, have extremely tight performances. In other words, you can know everything about the jazz idiom, but if you're too tight to allow that jazz idiom out of the gut, it's not going to sound good. It's all about how you relate to the actual Gershwin in the here and now, and not in the historical."
Wolfram finds it helpful to meet with the conductor to get a feel for each other's style.
"It's like any kind of music with other musicians; it's like interactive sports," said Wolfram.
"It is the moment, how mentally agile you are and how quickly you can adjust. You listen, and it's how quickly you adjust to slight differences."
Grams described himself as a "hired gun" of a conductor.
"What's good for someone like me, the stage I am in my career, relatively young, relatively developing, is you get to experience a wide variety of orchestra and orchestral styles and different cultures," he said. "It's astonishing how different orchestras work with each other and with conductors in various places around the world."
And although American orchestras also each have their own distinct culture, generally speaking, "in America you can generally count on a certain level, I don't know, I don't want to call it seriousness... from the very first rehearsal, everybody's concentrating pretty hard and getting it as close to concert ready as quickly as they can. In Europe, everybody's much more relaxed and then as you get closer to the concert, things start to pick up."
The third work on the program, the Toccata Concertante, was written by Irving Fine (1914-1962) in 1947 and first performed a year later by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky, who was Fine's mentor.
Fine was part of a group of Boston composers that included Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland and composed music in a neoclassical mode.
The Toccata, said Grams, has a "typical American flavor that deals with a European idiom."
"They're all very different from each other. It's one of my more favorite programs that I'm doing this season," said Grams.
MASTERWORKS VI: MADE IN AMERICA. Sarasota Orchestra. Andrew Grams, guest conductor. William Wolfram, soloist. 8 p.m. March 14 at Neel Performing Arts Center, SCF Bradenton, 5840 26th St. W., Bradenton; 8 p.m. March 15-16, 2:30 p.m. March 17, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets range from $30-$84. 953-3434; www.SarasotaOrchestra.org.