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Johannes Brahms was born on this date 184 years ago: on May 7, 1833. The Brahms Bicentennial is only 16 years away!
Like Sebastian, Brahms is a composer whose music has been a deep and abiding presence in my life. Yet I have so far avoided writing much about his music here on Off The Podium. Beyond a reflection I wrote in 2015 after attending a performance of his Requiem, I have merely mentioned Brahms a few times in other articles. So far.
Today, in honor of Brahms’ Birthday, I offer these personal anecdotes:
Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) was a Russian composer best known today for a few celebrated works, including Night on Bald Mountain – a musical depiction of a “witches sabbath” most often played on Halloween programs and other programs depicting musical grotesqueries – and Boris Gudunov, an opera based on a drama by Pushkin: the butt of one of the first classical music jokes music majors learn in undergraduate school:
Q: Why did Mussorgsky only write one opera?
A: Because one Boris Gudunov.
His most beloved composition today is Pictures at an Exhibition, which was originally written as a large suite for solo piano but is best known to the listening public as a large-scale symphonic work in its orchestration by the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937).
Austrian composer and organist Anton Bruckner is primarily known today for his symphonies – his music is often paired with that of Gustav Mahler as the apotheosis of the late Romantic Austro-German symphonic tradition. Although Bruckner and Mahler symphonies share many characteristics – a common musical heritage and language, the robust late nineteenth century orchestra, sprawling scales and harmonies in which the symphony seems to encompass an entire world of expression – in many ways their music also differs. Mahler was 36 years younger than Bruckner, whom Mahler admired and considered his forerunner – at 17 years old, Mahler was present at the premiere of Bruckner’s Third Symphony in 1877. Mahler famously said “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” and his symphonies contain myriad references to themes, experiences, and objects from life. Many of Mahler’s symphonies incorporate vocal soloists and chorus – and hence text – whereas Bruckner’s symphonies are without exception purely instrumental works (which is interesting to note as Bruckner also composed many sacred choral works in addition to his symphonic output). Bruckner’s symphonies inhabit a more abstract, elemental “tone world” than Mahler’s – every bit as overwhelming, inspiring, and at times terrifying as Mahler’s, but for the most part at more of a remove from direct references to the world we live in. The Romantic Fourth Symphony is an exception.
Olga Scheps seems poised to take on the world. A young pianist with extraordinary powers of expression, Olga has been enchanting audiences throughout Europe for several years but seems to be little known in the United States, or in the general English-speaking world. From what I have been able to learn, she has only appeared once in the U.S. – two performances of Liszt’s Concerto No. 2 with the San Antonio Symphony in 2012 – but from the pace of her concertizing and recording for the last few years, it seems like it will just be a matter of time before she begins to make similar strong impressions on music lovers on this side of the Atlantic. In 2015 alone so far Olga has performed either solo recitals or as concerto soloist with orchestras throughout Germany where she lives, in Spain, Wales, and Japan, and made debuts in Israel and Sweden. She records exclusively for Sony and has produced five CDs in the last six years – four solo recital discs and a luminous, touching recording of both Chopin concerti with Matthias Foremny and the Stuttgart Kammerorchester released in 2014. Her latest recording – Vocalise – was released in Germany on July 17.
Olga’s repertoire is a balanced combination of the very familiar (read: warhorses) and the seldom performed, and she brings to everything she plays a deeply considered emotional sensitivity to the impulses that drive the music. Although it is clear that she has the technical prowess and sheer muscle to pull off the grandest effects called for in the many masterpieces in her repertoire, it is the beautiful clarity of her approach to playing the piano and her attention to subtle details of expression which I find most remarkable.
Nashville Symphony musicians are in the process of performing in three programs featuring the music of the German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. Beginning last Friday through Sunday, the symphony accompanied the Nashville Ballet in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at TPAC’s Jackson Hall.
Then (TONIGHT) Wednesday evening, April 29, symphony violinist Jessica Blackwell leads two string ensembles in performances of Mendelssohn’s famous Octet, as well as the Prelude and Scherzo, Op. 11 for string octet by Dmitri Shostakovich, as part of our ongoing Onstage series of free chamber music performances at Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Finally, beginning (TOMORROW) Thursday, April 30 with performances following on Friday, May 1 and Saturday May 2, the symphony will perform Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with guest soloist Benjamin Pasternack in a program that also includes music by contemporary composer Frank Tichelli and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique”.
This weekend I was reminded of the embarrassment of riches we have in Music City. The symphony presented fabulous concerts on Friday and Saturday, featuring two works by American composer Michael Daugherty, both recent and one (Tales of Hemingway for Cello and Orchestra with the incomparable Zuill Bailey) a world premiere, alongside standard repertoire by Beethoven and Stravinsky. On Sunday, Music City Baroque presented their 10th Anniversary Season Finale with a performance of the Vivaldi Gloria at St. George’s Episcopal Church, and West End United Methodist Church presented a performance of A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms featuring their Chancel Choir under the direction of Matthew Phelps, with Margy Bredemann, soprano, and Jonathan Carle, baritone. Both of Sunday’s concerts were free.
When I was 17 my family moved to Claremont, California, and I had the good fortune to meet and study piano with Gary Davenport, a Juilliard graduate who had recently returned home after many years in New York. Gary at 30 was a brilliant and accomplished pianist, a tall thin guy with a droopy mustache who chain-smoked tall thin More cigarettes through my lessons, which I played on one of two seven-foot pianos in his living room. One morning after a lesson, Gary invited me to stay after for coffee. This was not an unusual event – often we would hang around in his kitchen and talk about music or the dissertation he was writing after we finished in the living room.
On this particular morning while the coffee grounds were steeping in the French press, Gary told me he had something he wanted me to hear (again, this was not unusual) and put a record on the turntable. It was the Chicago Symphony’s recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, and it was my first acquaintance with Mahler’s music. I was studying pretty standard piano fare with Gary: Bach preludes and fugues, Beethoven sonatas, etc. – but this was something completely new. I will never forget standing on the floor of his tiny kitchen as I listened to the opening bars of the Ninth for the first time, spellbound as the pointillist orchestration coalesced into the first theme and built to the climax at m. 46. Gary looked at me at that moment – when Guilini (characteristically) pushes the ritardando on that bar to the point where it becomes a fermata – and then, after the a tempo, he took the needle off the record, packed it back into the album’s sleeve, and put it in my hands. “Take this home and listen to it.” he said, “When it comes to the symphonic repertoire, Bruckner and Mahler are where it’s at.”
Thus began my relationship with the music of Gustav Mahler.