Whew! That was exhausting.
It was a good thing that February contained one extra day, as I needed any break possible. It all started back in Lyon, with a program that would also be played in Paris. As many of you may know, the Auditorium is blessed with a fantastic organ, recently restored. And as you may also know, there is a new hall in Paris that now contains a brand new instrument. We would be the first orchestra to play a concert featuring this new addition to the Philharmonie.
Coming up with a program was not easy. I did not want to do the usual suspects, therefore no Saint-Saëns 3 or Poulenc concerto. But we were asked to include the instrument in each work we performed. Starting off with Respighi’s incredible transcription of the C minor Passacaglia and Fugue by Bach, which does include the organ, turned out to be a great idea. Most people these days do not hear these orchestrations very often, and for some it seemed an anomaly. But what a great showcase for the orchestra, not to mention Respighi’s genius. It received a rapturous response from the audiences in Lyon and Paris.
The only real connection to France came in the form of Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, the first composition for full forces that he ever wrote. At the premiere, the organist was Copland’s teacher, Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied in the French capital. What an amazing piece, very much ahead of its time and in keeping with the discovery of vernacular music in the concert hall during the ’20s. It has been my pleasure to have performed this work a few times, but this one was special simply because almost no one in the orchestra or audience had ever heard of the piece.
After the intermission came a piece for solo organ by Ligeti. Volumina shows off the instrument in every sonic way possible, and Vincent Warnier, our resident organist, was brilliant in this, as he was in all the other pieces on the program. With Ligeti ending on the highest possible notes and as soft as possible, the logical work to follow was Zarathustra, which begins in a manner quite the opposite. One does not think of French orchestras when it comes to Richard Strauss, but the ONL really showed off in virtually all phases of the piece. The reception in Lyon was wonderful, but Zarathustra tore down the house in Paris. Clearly we have become a musical force to be reckoned with in France.
There was an additional activity that week as well. I decided to try and teach an audience how to conduct. In an hour, I went through all the basics of technique, told some funny stories, and worked with the orchestra to demonstrate speeds, dynamics, and other details. At the end, we had three audience members come up and lead the “Toreador Song” and then asked the whole crowd to stand up and conduct all at one time. It was quite a sight and a lot of fun, and now the administration has decided to make this an annual event.
The mid-winter festival in Detroit was devoted to Brahms. Amazingly, his works for orchestra, excluding the vocal ones, consist of only 14 pieces: four symphonies, four concerti, two serenades, two overtures, a set of variations, and three Hungarian dances. As is usual for this period of time, we play each concert twice, and there are two different programs each week. That is 12 concerts over a three-week span. Now start to figure out how we rehearse this, and you will learn how exhausting it is for all of us, both on and off the stage.
The symphonies were recorded for release in early May. They will be available as downloads and may be pre-ordered on iTunes and Amazon. Preparing these works and all the others is intense when presented over such a limited period of time. I found myself completely reexamining the works and how they relate to each other. As opposed to previous festivals of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, BrahmsFest did not reveal the composer’s natural progression from one piece to the next. Each work is so individual that it needs to be understood on its own terms rather than in relationship to other pieces.
The ever-present shadow of Beethoven never leaves, and in a few cases, one can actually feel Brahms trying ever so hard to distance himself from Ludwig. And with the coronation by Robert Schumann, there just was no way for the young composer to truly live up to the mantle, at least in his own head. That is probably why it took him the better part of 18 years to write that first symphony.
For the first time, we had a “scholar in residence” at the DSO, in this case the distinguished composer and author Jan Swafford. He gave illuminating lectures prior to each concert, and I was so pleased that we had record attendance for these talks. This full-immersion baptism made each of us think about the composer in new ways. I really had not given a lot of thought to the rift between Brahms and the Liszt-Wagner camps.
Over the three weeks, we were joined by some remarkable soloists. Baiba Skride played the violin concerto and the double concerto with cellist Danjulo Ishizaka. The two string works had intense energy and beauty. Baiba really brought everyone to tears with a heart-wrenching view of the slow movement of the violin concerto. Hélène Grimaud came in for the final week with the two piano concerti. Again, poetry reigned, and Hélène delivered an extraordinarily large sound when required. It is always a pleasure to work with her, and this concentrated period with the two works confirmed that we were on the same wavelength throughout. The orchestra seemed enthralled by all three soloists as well as one more from within their ranks.
You see, there were not enough original Brahms works to fill out the three weeks, so we included two transcriptions. One of them was the F minor clarinet sonata, as orchestrated by Luciano Berio. He tries to dress it up a bit like a concerto, but I found that this approach did not work all of the time. Still, it is an interesting curiosity, and our principal clarinet, Ralph Skiano, did it proud.
Having performed it once a long time ago, I also programmed the Brahms-Schoenberg G minor piano quartet. Having heard this piece in its original form during my childhood, I swore that I would never do it. The only other time was during a summer festival devoted to transcriptions in Minneapolis, and I hated the experience. This time I was stuck. But if one assumes that Schoenberg really loved the piece and did not try to change it, then it is possible to accept the work in this guise. Jan Swafford said, “I think that by the time he got around to the last movement, Schoenberg just decided that he would throw everything in that was possible.” Given the Hungarian circus nature of the finale, that is probably the only way to approach the problem. We all had a great time with it, and the audience actually cheered this as much as any work during the festival.
As for the orchestral works, what can I say? I love them all equally. If someone ever comes up to me and asks, “What is your favorite piece of music,” I believe that my reply now would be, “If you came to any of the Brahms Festival concerts, you would know that this is a question that cannot be answered.”
We had a beard-growing contest. I lost. There was a special beer brewed just for the festival. And red hedgehogs were to be found all over the hall. When it comes time to assess what I have brought to Detroit, it is now possible to say that these winter festivals have been among the most rewarding of projects I have done anywhere.
Because of the Brahms Festival, I decided to use the drive time to delve into the solo piano music. There were two sets of recordings that I chose, both by pianists possibly unfamiliar to many readers. The first was my good friend, Walter Klien. The gentle Austrian had a huge repertoire, and after we performed together for the first time, I made sure that we were often together onstage.
Klien’s recorded legacy includes traversals of Mozart and Schubert as well as Brahms. He did not commit everything to disc, but the recordings that are available show a remarkable kinship with Brahms’s music. Even though the sonic quality varies, Walter’s musicality and variety of sounds are apparent in every bar. The Handel variations are among the very finest, and his recording of all the Hungarian Dances, with duo-partner Alfred Brendel, is simply intoxicating.
Even less known was the American Julius Katchen. I never heard him live and did not have the opportunity to work with him. His very early death was a huge blow to many musicians. Acknowledged as a true Brahms master, he shows a mastery of the subtle nuances required for this music in his recordings. Whether in small intermezzi or the large-scale sonatas, Katchen remains an essential listening experience for anyone interested in the solo piano works.
Now we begin a nine-week road trip. Not one work is repeated in any city. There are two premieres, and if I needed to, I would have to speak three more languages. One thing is for sure: vacation time will be spent sleeping on airplanes.
See you next month.