Five extraordinary masterworks. Four beefy programs. An unforgettable third symphony. Two world-class soloists. One ecstatic music nerd.
Brahmspalooza ’012 is upon us.
Unfortunately (fortunately?), Brahmspalooza ’012 is not actually known as Brahmspalooza ’012 anywhere other than in my mind. The Minnesota Orchestra has done the dignified thing and labeled their ten-day long midwinter festival devoted to everyone’s favorite bearded misogynistic Hamburgian “Bravo Brahms.” The four programs consist of the first and third symphonies, the two serenades, the two piano concertos, and (of course) the violin concerto, along with some extra treats like the Haydn Variations and Schicksalslied.
And it looks like next weekend I’m going to get to see two of those programs in three concerts!
The summer I turned seventeen, I went to music camp. Every few nights we went to concerts by guest artists of the highest caliber, and when we didn’t go to concerts, we listened to each other perform. In a weird way, the opportunity to do a whackload of intense condensed listening impressed me even more than the chances I had to actually play. Ever since that summer, I’ve dreamed of having an experience like that again: a spurt away from the obligations of real life, soaked through with live music of the highest quality, designed to sharpen my ears and expand my intellectual horizons.
This January, after quite a long time of waiting, I’ve finally got the chance I’ve yearned after.
As soon as I found out I could go to at least a portion of Brahmspalooza, I realized I had an opportunity that I literally might never have again in my life. World-class orchestra, world-class soloists, in some of the greatest repertoire ever written, all by a single composer (and what a composer!), performed within the course of a few days. This is going to be a classical music masterclass, and I’d be a crap music lover if I didn’t take full advantage of it. So I went to the library and picked out the thickest Brahms biography I could find, which turned out to be Jan Swafford’s. I’ve always enjoyed Swafford’s Slate columns on music. A year or two ago I actually checked out his Brahms biography, but for some reason never started it. But alas, that was before the enticing prospect of Brahmspalooza ’012. Now I had both a deadline and a reason for reading, so I tore into that thing like a hungry dog gnawing a beef femur.
I was hooked from the very first page. This is the best music biography I’ve read for a long time, maybe ever. It has the psychological insight and emotional breadth of a fine novel. Swafford is not afraid to humanize the gods of music, and thank goodness, because few things are as unloveable as saints. Swafford shares anecdotes ranging from the heartbreaking (a widowed Clara Schumann concertizing and sobbing backstage in between pieces) to the bizarre (Bruckner fondling Beethoven’s skull during an exhumation), and manages to effortlessly weave these smaller sketches into a much larger canvas. I’m of a mind to deconstruct this book and graph an arc of the narrative, because I was so enthralled with the writing that I didn’t pay any heed to the underlying structure. Which, of course, is the hallmark of any great performance, whether literary or musical.
One point of the book that has been a consistent delight is Swafford’s explorations of Brahms’s rocky relations with women. As most musicians know, it seems likely that Brahms began his performing career as a child in the brothels of Hamburg, and he likely saw horrific things there that scarred him for life. (And yeah, I know this point is currently under contention, but for the moment I’m going to trust Swafford that it really did happen…) In any case, regardless of what occurred in the dives, like most other citizens of nineteenth-century Europe, he was a firm believer that women should be seen and not heard. At the same time, in a delicious paradox, he managed to fall in love with one of the greatest pianists of the age, Clara Schumann, who, maybe more than any other single individual, helped legitimize women instrumentalists. Swafford’s treatment of their relationship was my favorite part of the book: he never resorts to stereotypes, and he paints their love as more of an intellectual and emotional kinship rather than a (boring) traditional romance. Knowledge of their connection has made pieces like the slow movement of the first piano concerto (a portrait, Brahms once wrote, of Clara) echo with a unbearably sweet poignancy. Brahms himself wasn’t keen on the idea of posterity knowing how his life influenced his music. I have to disagree with the great man. Yes, the first piano concerto was gorgeous and beautifully affecting on first hearing, but knowing that as he worked its creator was thinking of an unattainable genius fourteen years his senior, whose husband helped make his career and genius possible? Well, there can’t be a much more intellectually and emotionally affecting experience in a listener’s life than that.
So, stage one of Brahmspalooza preparation – reading a good Brahms biography – was a go. What now?
I looked at the programs. The concerts I’m going to consist of the Haydn Variations, the violin concerto, the first piano concerto, and the first serenade. For some reason, a few years ago I got addicted to the first movement of the serenade, so I’m very familiar with that. And of course every violinist has worn out a tape or CD of the Brahms concerto, me included. But the rest of the rep was, embarrassingly, new territory. So I started to listen to some Brahms recordings.
And nothing but Brahms recordings.
Yes, the last few weeks I’ve been up to my earlobes in beautiful but unidiomatic string writing, lush harmonies, and a brainy, almost desperate, sincerity. I feel a little bit like I’ve been ingesting the aural equivalent of the meat-and-potatoes meals my grandmother used to cook for threshers.
To help it all sink in, I went to IMSLP and looked up the scores and followed along. I bowed and fingered difficult passages in my mind. I went through following first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, bass. And not just the strings, but the first horn, second horn, oboe, clarinet…everybody. I even practiced whacking things while following the percussion part (FYI, you do not want me to be the rhythmic backbone of an orchestra). I may not know the pieces inside and out, but I do know them a heck of a lot better than I did even a few weeks ago, and I even got some mental sight-reading practice into the bargain. I know where the big gestures are, where phrases are going, what tiny, unexpectedly moving moments to watch out for (I’m especially fond of a descending half-step in the first movement of the piano concerto; I actually dreamt about it recently, which may be a sign I have a serious problem). It has been a slog on occasion (oh, for a silvery Fauré barcarolle!), but the hours of careful listening have been worth it, and I have a feeling they’re going to pay off this weekend.
So it is that I’m doing everything I can to enjoy this hopefully-not-but-very-possibly-once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Now I’m going to turn this ramble over to readers. How do you prepare for important concerts? Do you do a lot of listening? How do you do that listening? Is the music in the background, in the foreground? Do you follow along in the score? Do you faux-conduct? Do you read biographies? Do you Google? Do you search out radio programs or podcasts? Or do you just chill out and come to the hall content in the unfamiliarity of pieces that are new to you? I want to enjoy every single measure of Brahmspalooza ’012, and I’d love to hear any tips or suggestions of how best to take in highly anticipated concerts.
I’m going to sign off with a terrifying cliffhanger that has nothing to do with Brahmspalooza ’012, and will probably be the subject of my next blog: this week, I’m picking up a viola for the very first time. Stay tuned…