Brahmspalooza ’012 has disappeared in the rearview mirror. I’ve taken such a long detour through Violaland that, despite good intentions, I haven’t had the time to write about my brush with Brahms. But I do want to set down my thoughts about the four (count ‘em – four) concerts I attended before I forget so many details that I end up sounding like one of those critics who writes eighty percent of his review before stepping in the hall.
As it happened, Brahmspalooza was interrupted by a totally unexpected introduction to none other than Augustin Hadelich. A friend offered me a ticket to see him play the Ligeti violin concerto with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It took approximately a tenth of a second to decide that this would be worth the cab fare from Minneapolis.
For those of you who think that Minnesotans are a bunch of laid-back Marge Gundersons, you might be surprised at the long history of fraternal dysfunction between the Twin Cities. In 1965 St. Paul decided to observe Daylight Saving Time with the rest of the nation, while Minneapolis opted to conform with Minnesota state law, leading – unbelivably – to a time when the two cities’ clocks were set an hour apart. And in an even creepier incident, in 1890 the New York Times reported that census workers were kidnapped so that there wouldn’t be a record of one city outgrowing the other. You can’t make this stuff up.
Thankfully, members of the Minnesota Orchestra (in Minneapolis) and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (you can guess where they’re based) haven’t resorted to kidnapping each other. (Although this might be an interesting plot twist to the next Gerald Elias novel…) I haven’t spent enough time in the Minnesota music scene to know if there’s any kind of rivalry, or if one is generally considered to be superior to the other. All I can say is that I’m very happy that Minneapolis-St. Paul is able to support two world-class orchestras. We suffer an embarrassment of riches.
As beautifully performed as they were, the opening and closing pieces on the program – The Marriage of Figaro overture and El Amor Brujo by de Falla – were totally and completely eclipsed by Hadelich in the Ligeti. It was my first time hearing both the violinist and the piece, and I can’t imagine a more beguiling introduction to either. Hadelich is astonishing. When he plays you hear his soul, full of heart and character and warmth. He also clearly has an insatiable intellect, and his sheer commitment to Ligeti was inspiring. I’m still on the fence about the piece itself. On one hand, I loved its virtuosity and eerie beauty. Hearing certain acoustical effects resonate live through the auditorium was an unbelievable, unforgettable experience. But I don’t know how well those effects would translate to disc; for me it was one of those pieces that only makes real sense live. I hope someday I get to see it again. I know I’ll see Hadelich again; I imagine that after that performance someone from the SPCO ambushed him at the stage door with a new contract. His tossed-off encore – the twenty-fourth caprice, obviously! – gave the impression of being completely effortless. But we violinists know the truth.
So, the inevitable question… Who’s better, the SPCO or the Minnesota Orchestra? Please don’t make me choose, especially after the SPCO breezed through the incredibly virtuosic orchestral writing of the Ligeti. They’re both worth buying tickets to. Let’s leave it at that.
Brahmspalooza ’012 resumed that evening with a performance by the Minnesota Orchestra back in Minneapolis. By supper-time I was getting awfully sore and tired (I was subsisting on a couple hours’ sleep, and I’d been sprinting around two downtowns attempting to catch cabs and escape the bite of the Arctic wind). No problem, I told myself, I’ll just pop a Tylenol. This was a huge mistake. For me Tylenol dulls not only the pain, but everything else: thoughts, impressions, emotions. When I’m doing nothing more than surfing the web and breathing, that’s fine. But when I’m trying to listen to one of the country’s, if not the world’s, greatest orchestras, I can’t afford to be cloudy. If I’m nearly falling asleep at a Minnesota Orchestra concert, that means either they’re in bad shape or I’m in bad shape. I’m going to assume that Friday night it was a case of the latter.
The program consisted of two pieces – Brahms first piano concerto starring Peter Serkin and Brahms first serenade for orchestra. Serkin made a surprise appearance before the concert started, wandering onstage and playing a few minutes before suddenly disappearing again. I’m not sure if I liked that he did this, and it’s bothering me why I’m not sure if I liked it. I don’t begrudge violinists a few moments to warm up; why should I object to a pianist doing the same thing? But it did take away a bit of the exciting pomp and circumstance of the great artist emerging with the conductor from the auditorium door, and I missed that. Maybe though the pomp and circumstance is overrated.
Sadly, Serkin’s performance fell largely flat for me. I hesitate to say the first movement was a mess, but…something very big and very integral was missing, and I can’t figure out what it was. Passion? Authenticity? An overarching conception? My sanity? Soloist and conductor struck me as often working at cross-purposes: I felt like Serkin wanted to explore the subtleties, the nooks and crannies, of every sumptuous phrase, while Vanska wanted to charge ahead and emphasize Brahms’s broad heroic lines. I can appreciate both approaches, but meshed together, they just didn’t work. On top of this, although I couldn’t tell for sure from my seat, it seemed that the visual lines of communication between the principles might have been broken by the piano. Whether because of this or other reasons, there was a general fuzziness to the first movement that set me on edge. But then came an utterly divine Adagio with hushed string whispers and a lovely pearly touch from Serkin. The sounds settled softly over the audience like a down blanket. It was a young man’s portrait of his beloved, and it was so beautiful. I spent the rest of the concerto trying to process the discrepancies between those two movements. After the applause ended, I turned to my companion and demanded, “What was that?” And then I moaned and said, “I am never drugging myself before a concert again.”
After intermission came the first serenade. Listening to it live, I decided it’s too long for its own good. It goes on and on and on. And on. And then on some more. Sometimes when I listen to it I have the temptation to snap oh shut up and just write your damned symphony already. But that being said, it’s still Brahms, you know? Even long-winded Brahms is Brahms. And that first movement in particular is so special. Does anyone do that sweet, elated, hesitant, joyful, buoyant, serious, lighthearted thing like Brahms? He takes these ridiculously complex, oftentimes contradictory, yet instantly recognizable emotions, and then he composes music that perfectly expresses them. It had been a very full day, and my thoughts were beginning to drift, but I felt a happiness, a contentment, of the very deepest kind as I heard the quiet ending of the first movement fade away. Any fuzziness or timidity I’d felt in the piano concerto had vanished; the Orchestra was back to being the crazy-wonderful beast it normally is.
But who knows what I would have thought or heard if I would have held off a few hours on the medication? I’m vowing here publicly never to listen under the influence again, no matter how bad the pain gets. It’s just not worth it. It makes me wonder how many performances we really like or don’t like we actually don’t know if we like or not…if that makes sense. What other non-musical influences do we bring into the concert hall with us, whether they be the side-effects of Tylenol, or a flattering review we just read about the soloist, or the bitter aftertaste of a fight with a loved one? And how do those influences affect our ability to process what we hear? The realization that the experience of live music might be even more subjective than I’ve thought…? That’s seriously unnerving.
The first and the last concerts I attended that weekend consisted of Ehnes in Brahms concerto. I’ll get to him sooner or later, but all I’ll say for now is:
Two Paganini encores.