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Burleigh's Greatest Hits 

Chamber Music Plus and Louis Gossett Jr. give a forgotten singer his due

There's an oft-told story in classical music circles about how in the 1890s, a rich society lady established a music school in New York City, and how she hired a world-famous Czech composer to come over and teach Americans how to write American music. This Czech composer wound up writing the Great American Symphony himself; he was Antonin Dvorák, and he dubbed the symphony "From the New World."

A fine story it is, but it's incomplete. How about the part where Dvorák's symphony wouldn't have existed, at least not quite the way we know it, without the help of a penniless young black man named Henry T. Burleigh?

Well, you'll get the full story, from no less than actor Louis Gossett Jr. (An Officer and a Gentleman, the Iron Eagle movies), in the next presentation by Chamber Music Plus Southwest: Dvorák's New World. Working from a script by Harry Clark, Gossett will portray Burleigh and tell of his friendship with the Czech composer; Clark, a cellist, along with pianist Sanda Schuldmann and bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, will perform music by both Dvorák and Burleigh.

"The great joy in this is discovering Burleigh's music," says Clark. After Dvorák went back to Bohemia, Burleigh became famous as a singer and as a compiler of Negro spirituals--some 200 of them, many never having been set down on paper before. Burleigh wrote rich accompaniments for the spirituals.

Dvorák was no stranger to gorgeous melody himself, but it was Burleigh who introduced him to many of the African-American themes he would weave into parts of his "New World" Symphony, along with much original music and some Native American material.

Although Burleigh lived into the 1940s, his reputation died with him. "One of the things that shocked me," says Clark, who did extensive research for this theater piece, "is here's a man who was very well known with a 60-year span of performing, yet there is but one two-minute recording of him singing." Between the usual prejudice and the lack of a PR machine, Burleigh didn't have a chance to become as respected as he deserved.

Since you can't order a CD of Henry T. Burleigh's greatest hits, you'll probably never get closer to his art than you can this Sunday through Gossett, Allicock and Chamber Music Plus Southwest.

Chamber Music Plus presents Dvorák's New World at 3 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 3; there's a pre-concert chat at 2:30 p.m. It takes place at the Berger Center for the Performing Arts, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd.; $30 general, $15 students; 400-5439; www.cmpsouthwest.org.

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