Tag Archives: Brahmspalooza

Brahmspalooza ’012!: Part 3

On Thursday 12 January and Saturday 14 January, violinist James Ehnes took the Orchestra Hall stage to play the Brahms concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. I was at both performances, but unfortunately I can’t review either.

Well, I could, theoretically. But you’d have no reason to trust anything I say because my pro-Ehnes bias has a long history. A month after my thirteenth birthday, I heard a performance of his Tchaikovsky concerto broadcast live on public radio. I taped the concert (taped, as in taping using cassette tapes – do the kids nowadays even know what those are?), and thank God I did, because my life would have been a very different thing if I hadn’t. The first half of the concert consisted of a Shostakovich symphony that flew completely over my head. But the second half was Tchaikovsky. And it was unforgettable. It spoke to me in a way that nothing had before and nothing will again. I don’t know why; I wish I did. I’ve listened to it literally thousands of times over the last decade, and I can’t know any more if it really is as earth-shattering as I felt it to be when I was thirteen. It took on a life of its own.

I listened to that recording constantly as a teenager. I listened to it before and after school. I bought a Dover miniature score and read it during class. I listened to it before I announced to my teacher that, despite only knowing first position and a little bit of third, I wanted to be a professional violinist. (Let’s skim over how unrealistic that goal ultimately was, and just focus on the good intentions, okay?) I listened to it when I was lonely and crying and afraid. I listened to it when I was seventeen and convinced I was dying and my doctors told me nothing was wrong to me. I listened to it when I recovered. I listened to it when I injured my wrist and it seemed likely I’d never play violin again. I listened to it after my counselor suggested that maybe it would be a good idea if I gave up music. I listened to it when I was a student at the 2006 Green Lake Festival Chamber Music Workshop in Ripon, Wisconsin; I monopolized the listening room with it after everyone else had stopped practicing and gone back to the dorm for the night. I became obsessed with this recording and the violin, and I waited for the day when I would tire of them.

I’m still waiting.

At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, I honestly believe that without that recording, something awful would have happened to me. I would have continued on the drifting path of study I’d been on, only bringing out the violin every week or two, then month or two. Until finally one day it would have been a year or more since I’d played last, and I’d have opened the closet door and looked at the unused fiddle and told myself, “you know, I should sell that…”

The mere thought of this alternate universe brings on a panic attack. Because it was so close to materializing.

The classical music world is competitive and cutthroat. We’re the less crazy, less attractive versions of the characters in Black Swan. We lock ourselves into practice rooms for weeks at a time. We spend our lives preparing for careers that we almost certainly will never have. We’re constantly asking ourselves, are we good enough?, and casting paranoid glances over our shoulders and realizing we aren’t. And yet despite all the pressure and the politics, a weirdly high percentage of the artists I’ve met are incredibly kind and humble, and are people worthy of looking up to, not just musically, but personally. I don’t know why this is, but it’s true. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to meet Ehnes and chat with him a bit after various concerts over the last nine years. And despite his abilities and achievements, James Ehnes is among the kindest and humblest of them all.

So you know what? Ehnes didn’t even need to do a single thing besides walk onstage before I started misting up. On top of that, the performance was sentimental in another way, since his first appearance with a major American orchestra was actually with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1992 after winning the WAMSO competition. It was all a bit like the closing scene of a sappy Hallmark movie in which the boy-next-door protagonist, after decades of hard work, finally makes good and comes home.

I’ll try faking objectivity and try to pick out a highlight or two to describe, although this is difficult since everything he played was a highlight. For the Thursday morning performance, I was in the front row. Saturday night, I was in the first tier, third row from the back. That night I could tell it was taking a little bit longer for the sound to reach me – alas, even James Ehnes cannot defy laws of acoustical physics – but other than that, given the distance it was traveling, the sound on Saturday sounded remarkably similar to the sound on Thursday. That 1715 Strad was throwing its voice like nobody’s business. And there was such a range of dynamics, with every note, pianissimo or fortissimo, discernible from the very back of the hall. It was literally jaw-dropping. One violin is not supposed to be able to pierce through the texture of an entire symphony orchestra, especially not when playing pianissimo! But it did. Listeners who aren’t sure if it’s possible or not…rest assured, it is. It was so disorienting in such a wonderful way.

Another thing that I appreciated – especially after the puzzling Friday night Serkin performance – was the fact that Vänskä and Ehnes seemed to have relatively complementary views of the concerto. Either that, or Ehnes is capable of seamlessly blending in with an opposing approach without ever compromising his own artistic vision. Either option seems plausible.

The more restrained Thursday morning crowd didn’t applaud long enough to draw out an encore, but on Saturday night, the audience simply would not let him go. He came back onstage with Paganini 24 (“Brahms wrote nothing for solo violin,” he said from the stage, “but he did write a set of piano variations on this tune…”). He then proceeded to play Paganini 24 in a way no human being should be able to. This level of technical and musical achievement is supposed to only be attainable on disc, over the course of multiple sessions, with the help of state-of-the-art recording equipment and a crafty, cynical editor. But maybe with Ehnes it’s wise to expect the impossible. During the triple stops of the eighth variation I could have sworn there were two violinists, one suspended on the left side of the hall and the other on the right, their sounds colliding together onstage. I’ve never heard anything like it. I probably never will again.

The audience still wasn’t satiated. So he returned again with Paganini 16. (“This? Has nothing to do with Brahms,” he said by way of introduction.)

Words fail me.

You know, I’m sure Brahms third symphony afterward was fantastic, but for me, nothing was going to measure up to the electricity of seeing Brahms concerto followed by two Caprices performed by one of the great violinists of the age who singlehandedly inspired me to keep going with the violin at a time when I was dangerously close to quitting. Sorry, Minnesota Orchestra; you know I love you! I think you’ve got to start scheduling your super-duper drop-dead amazing soloists after intermission so I’m not listening to your no doubt lovely symphonic performances completely shell-shocked.

Anyway. I’m not quite sure what exactly this entry was. An Ehnes appreciation post? A glimpse into my wangsty Tchaikovsky-tinged teenhood? Me admitting I ended up having no objectivity whatsoever during Brahmspalooza? All of the above? Who knows!

There’s only one way I can think of to wrap this disjointed ramble up, and that’s by reiterating the fact that I’m so thankful not just for James Ehnes’s talent, but rather for the bigger fact that music has such a powerful ability to inspire. I’m just so damned grateful, for all of it. I think just about every musician hears a performance or two in their lives that stands out in their mind as life-changing. What were yours?

So Brahmspalooza ’012 ended on an unbelievable high note…literally.

***

As a postscript, happy birthday to James Ehnes, who turns 36 today. It hardly suffices, but thank you.

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Brahmspalooza ’012!: Part 2

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.

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Brahmspalooza ’012!: Part 1

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…

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