Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Symphony Peview: Of late bloomers and letter writing, November 21 and 22, 2015

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If you consider his entire output, Johannes Brahms was an early bloomer. He reportedly wrote his first piano sonata at the age of 11, was touring as a pianist by 19, and was only 20 when Schumann sang of his virtues in the October 28, 1853, issue of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik ("a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch"). Heady stuff.

Brahms, the boy wonder, 1853
And yet as a symphonist Brahms got off to a late start. His "Symphony No. 1 in C minor," op. 68, which takes up half of this weekend's St. Louis Symphony Concerts (with David Robertson at the podium), wasn't performed until 1876 (when Brahms was 43) and wasn't published in final form until the following year. "Part of the problem," wrote Larry Rothe in program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, "was that Brahms was such a harsh critic of his own work. He honed his material until he was satisfied, and he held himself to tough standards. We are told that his desire to be worthy is what kept him from introducing a symphony before he was already into middle age. He was intimidated by Beethoven. 'You have no idea what it's like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you,' he said, those footsteps resonating through his psyche, making him question if he could ever do anything on a par with the author of nine symphonies that seemed to define the limits of what music could express."

Listening to the magisterial opening of the Brahms First now, it seems astonishing that it could have sprung from the brain of a man consumed with self-doubt. It's such a strong statement and the rest of the movement is so filled with drama and so commanding, you'd think it would have drowned out the sound of Beethoven's footsteps.

The other movements are equally impressive. A lyrical Andante is next—featuring a graceful trio for oboe, violin, and horn—followed by a terpsichorean third movement marked un poco allegretto e grazioso. And then Brahms caps it all with a finale that radically changes the idea of what the fourth movement in a Romantic symphony should do.

"This movement," writes Tom Service in The Guardian, "is his solution to what he saw as the 19th century's symphonic problem—the tendency for the pieces to be weighted towards their opening allegros, to have worked out all their major structural tensions by the end of the first movement. Brahms's fourth movement is different: everything is at stake here. It's the longest part of the symphony, and from the outset, its drama is set out on a bigger stage than the previous three movements... On one hand, this music crowns the work's dramatic trajectory, but it also celebrates Brahms's own vanquishing of his symphonic demons. And if we've only the ears to hear it, we'll hear how completely he created something subtly, multi-dimensionally new."

Brett Dean
Speaking of new things, the only other work on this weekend's program is "The Lost Art of Letter Writing," a work for violin and orchestra from 2007 that's getting its SLSO premiere with these concerts. The composer is Brett Dean, whose "Testament (Music for 12 Violas)" and "Viola Concerto" had their local premieres with the orchestra last January.

At the time I thought Mr. Dean's concerto was rather lacking in substance, stretching a paucity of brief musical ideas out well past their modest breaking point. Whether that will be true of this latest work remains to be seen. Reviews of the piece have been positive, though, which bodes well. "The Lost Art of Letter Writing is a most sincere and substantial work," wrote Shirley Apthorp in The Financial Times in 2007. "[I]t is art which needs neither pretension nor gimmicks." In a review for The Guardian of the premiere recording of the piece by Sydney Symphony, Andrew Clements was even more enthusiastic. "Like the best works with literary subtexts," he wrote, "The Lost Art of Letter Writing can also be appreciated on its own purely abstract musical terms, and as a wonderfully idiomatic concerto inhabiting a post-Bergian musical world, it's as important an achievement as Dean's earlier Viola Concerto and one of the most significant recent additions to the violin-concerto repertoire."

Like many of Mr. Dean's compositions, "The Lost Art of Letter Writing" is what was once called "program music" in that it is inspired by and specifically refers to non-musical ideas. Specifically, the decline in letter writing and, indeed, in handwriting in general brought on by the ubiquity of computers. "A recent article in an Australian newspaper," writes Mr. Dean in his notes for his work at the Boosey and Hawkes web site, "points out that the proportion of personal letters amongst the total number of sent articles handled by the national postal authority, Australia Post, has declined from 50% in 1960 to 13% nowadays. Sure, we stay in touch arguably more than ever, via telephone, email and messaging, but that too has undoubtedly changed the nature of communicating."

"Each movement," he continues, "is prefaced by an excerpt from a 19th Century letter of one kind or another, ranging from private love-letter to public manifesto. Each title refers to the place and year the letter was written. The violin plays the alternate roles of both an author and a recipient of letters, but perhaps more importantly, the solo part conjures something of the mood of each of the different letters."

SLSO program annotator Paul Schiavo has some interesting things to say about "The Lost Art of Letter Writing" as does blogger Eddie Silva in a blog entry that includes an interview with SLSO violist Woehr. If you're planning to attend this weekend, they're both worth your time.

In the solo role for these concerts will be English violinist Jack Liebeck. Mr. Liebeck is professor of violin at the Royal Academy of Music and is the Artistic Director of Oxford May Music Festival (a festival of "Music, Science, and the Arts"), who comes to us with a string of good notices, several of which are quoted at his web site. Reviewing his performance of the Dvorak "Violin Concerto" last month with the Halle Orchestra, for example, Bachtrack praised his "deep understanding" of the music. "With a sound that is considerably versatile and of a beautiful sonority in the lower register, he called forth a rich soundscape which met the challenges of the concerto." In a similar vein Ken Walton, writing in The Scotsman last December, enthused about Mr. Liebeck's "nimble technique and purity of tone."

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with violinst Jack Liebeck, on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 21 and 22. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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