The symphony season began last weekend in Knoxville, and as usual, I attended the Friday performance. It was a wonderful performance, a wonderful evening, and I returned home bursting with happiness, happily jotting down a few notes and impressions of the concert, full of good intentions. It always takes me a while to translate my swirling emotions and thoughts following a concert into cogent words, and I have learned to accept this about myself, that I would not be suited to writing reviews on a deadline, just as my hands and mind refuse to become a fast knitter. Although I desire to make things and write, barring dire necessity, production itself is never the goal. It is sufficient to get wherever I am going in whatever pace is needed.
Alas, this week I took longer than anticipated. I was under the weather Saturday and again early in the week. Tikka was under the weather as well, and worry never aids in the flow of words. But we are both on the mend and this year I am determined to not let the concerts slip into the ether before I put down words, if only to assist my own memory.
It was a busy weekend in Knoxville, and I got to the concert hall early. Since this was the opening concert there was a champagne toast, and I enjoyed sipping champagne and spending time chatting with friends, getting to my seat before the short opening work, Starburst by young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff. It felt to me like the composer, and the orchestra as well, had captured that energy, that sense of bursting forth, and turned it into a beautiful, swirling performance. The music began with a great rhythmic energy that built to a single chord that held, then slowly faded away as instruments dropped off, folding into the perfect calm of a clarinet cadenza. The music built back up to a beautifully bouncing balance of rhythm and melody in the second half. I felt it was a happy piece, although admittedly these are but fleeting impressions, and I really need more exposure to the piece to build any kind of appreciation or understanding.
The Leshnoff was followed by what was for me the big draw of he evening, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, played by pianist Joyce Yang. Of course, I tend to think that the piece itself is a work of pure emotional genius, and I was not disappointed in the performance. Yang was fabulous, and the conversation between soloist and orchestra seemed perfectly harmonious, drawing this listener in from the opening bars of the solo piano, to the way the music swells into a powerful storm, balanced and interspersed with moments of calm. There is so much happening in that first movement, different themes running around each other, sometimes bumping together but never crashing. This is part of the genius of the piece to me, the way Rachmaninoff brings all these disparate elements into a common mesh, and the orchestra pulled this off beautifully. I could not help but ebb and rage, swept away with the music.
And that was only the first movement. The second movement is of course the movement we all know, and from the heights of the first movement I plunged into the second. It was the culmination of an emotionally difficult day, following a funeral for a friend's mother, seeing that same friend, drawn and worn, stretched thin; my concern for the family. I too was drawn and frayed and the emotion of the second movement burrowed deeply, eliciting tears. Of course that movement is filled with a sense of loss and longing. By the end I felt drained and spent, but of course you are not left there dangling, This is part of the genius of Rachmaninoff: following the cacophony of the first movement, through the emotional depths of the second movement, everything is pulled together in the finale. Through longing, comes peace, hope, thundering power and the majesty of something I can only liken to faith. It ended up being a perfect piece of music for me to be lost in on that particular day, probably on any day.
But this was only the first half of the concert. Through the intermission the beautiful cry of the oboe in the Rachmaninoff echoed in my thoughts, and of course it would soon be followed even more thrillingly in the second half of the concert, in the Brahms Symphony #1, with a shimmeringly beautiful oboe solo, and stunning solos on horns and violin, and its own unique way of combining disparate themes and ideas into a harmonious and satisfying whole. It was, I think, a happy pairing, the Rachmaninoff and the Brahms, both works brilliant in their respective ways.
I came late to an appreciation of Brahms, and I continue to grow in that regard. I heard a lot of Brahms growing up, along with Beethoven and Bach. Yes, my dad was a "three Bs" listener, but it was Beethoven that I most absorbed as a child, and Brahms with which I struggled the most. That could have simply been youth, but I think it was also the emphasis I absorbed, and which I think was played up in my father's recordings, that Brahms was the "new" Beethoven, the successor to Beethoven, and I am happy that orchestras and musicians have gotten away from that narrow view, if it was ever a trend. I don't know if that was a widely held view or just something I picked up, partially informed, from my small pool of understanding. I don't really see Brahms that way today. Of course there are moments that sound a little like Beethoven in some of the music, even in the first symphony, but in music, as in life, the past is inescapable, part and parcel of who we are. We can become a slave to it or move forward. Brahms moved forward.
Certainly the opening movement of Brahm's Symphony No, 1 feels like it owes little to Beethoven except, perhaps, in its use of texture rather than a consistent melody. I have to thank Aram Demirjian for reminding me of that as I was struggling with how to link my chicken scratches about the performance. I think of Beethoven as liking clearly defined themes, linked together in discrete packages, but that is not what you find in the first movement of Brahm's First. To this listener the Brahms opened with a polyphony of overlapping themes and ideas, a rich and complex counterpoint that felt far more closely related to Bach, and perhaps older forms as well, than anything that I associate with Beethoven. From the opening lines the rising notes of the violins and cellos form a contrast with the descending notes of the violas and clarinets -- joy contrasted with lament. It is almost exactly this contrast and overlapping of themes, melding into a harmonious whole, not particularly melodic but very moving and both intellectually and emotionally rich that brings the symphony into satisfying territory. Again, this movement seems to stand more on the shoulders of Bach than Beethoven, but truly it is neither. Brahms is reimagining the symphony: it is as if he is trying to merge the tight multi-dimensional complexity of a small scale work like a fugue with the grandeur and enveloping scale of an orchestral work. As the first movement continues to unfold the contrasting rising and falling lines seem to do battle, thrillingly but also harmoniously, locked together arm in arm, a yin and yang, although Brahms would not have known those terms.
Of course that high-wire balancing act cannot continue, and the first movement folds into the gentle lyricism of the second, a soothing place created by the music, like being caressed by silk, which slips into the allegretto e grazioso. Here we have a gentle dance, a melody on a gentle breeze, a symphony that has begun in a worldly cacophony of voices and then turned inward, self-soothing, seeking quiet joys.
And then, out of the calm, all hell breaks loose. That is really the only way I can describe the shock of the opening notes of the final movement. We have been lulled into near complacency and are jolted rudely awake. Eventually a sense of clarity begins to open, a spark of light, signaled by a resplendent horn call in C major. The big dramatic melody follows, the part people compare to Beethoven, a look to the past, but also surging into a new future, signaled once again by the horn call, harmonized by a bit of dissonance but breaking through into meltingly beautiful music. It is a symphony that feels somehow public and private, individual and universal, a multidimensional road map. To where? I leave that up to you.