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Brahms At The Roy Thompson Hall: A Review

November 19, 2013

On October 23rd 2013 around 6:36pm, the walls of the Roy Thomson Hall were quivering under the ominous tones of one of Johannes Brahms’ greatest symphonies: Symphony No. 2 in D Major. The piece was under the conduction of James Gaffigan, a guest to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), and was performed by the TSO Youth Orchestra.

Johannes Brahms was a German composer born May 7th, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany. He is known for writing piano and violin concertos, sonatas, and symphonies. He is most widely known for his Hungarian Dance (which includes gypsy influences), his German Requiem, and more specifically today for his lullaby "Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht" ("Good Evening, Good Night"), Op. 49, No. 4 from 1868, which is most commonly known as Brahms’ Lullaby. Although Brahms was a highly celebrated composer during his time, he was his own worst critic. He would often overanalyze his work and had been known to throw out entire works if it did not please him.

The audience of Brahms’ time were becoming more musically sophisticated. With the recent invention and increased popularity of the piano, peoples’ musical education and understanding had increased due to personal training and home lessons. Musical critics and journals were in their prime publishing, allowing the audience to create their own musical opinions and perspectives. Professional positions in music were becoming more dominant, and by the 1850s the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Society (later directed by Brahms in 1872) placed all activities under the direction of professionals and systematically began to eliminate all amateur instrumentalists from official concerts open to the public at large.

Brahms’ music was most likely played during Promenade Concert Series, as they began with a focus on canonic composers, and ended with new and upcoming composers that were similarly linked to the classical style i.e. Mendelssohn and Brahms. Since these series required subscriptions and were performed monthly, it was most likely that an elite higher class would attend, although it is possible for Brahms to have performed at benefit concerts, which would have allowed his music to be exposed to middle and lower classes.

The concert that I attended was a part of the TSO’s Afterworks Series, a series aimed at the commuters of Toronto. The series encouraged commuters to skip the slow drive home by attending a 6:30pm concert on a Wednesday night instead. The series also featured a host, Torontonian Tom Allan, who shared background information on the symphony and Brahms. The concert was marketed towards the working class adults of the city who may not know much about Brahms and his music.

The hall itself was crowded, but not sold out, as there were still many seats available near the back of each level. The actual audience was an older crowd, instead of the marketed younger adults. It was very hard to find a person in the crowd who could have been less than 40 years old. But why was there a stark difference between the marketed age group and the actual audience? There are several factors that affect the actual audience. Firstly, the young to middle-aged adults that were marketed to often have families and young children to attend to after work on a Wednesday night. Another factor would be the cost, not just of the ticket (which there were no discounted prices available, not even for students), but also for a possible baby sitter, dinner, and transportation. With the economy being as it is, it is becoming harder for people with families to justify a night at the orchestra, especially during the middle of the work week instead of a weekend when people tend to have more time and fewer complications. According to some of my colleagues, the Saturday night performance was packed and contained people of all age groups, suggesting that weekend concerts in the evenings are still more accessible to a wider range of people, regardless of marketing tactics that try to prove otherwise. It is interesting to note that Brahms’ concert attendees were privileged due to class and funds, whereas today’s concert attendees are mostly elderly people who not just have money, but also have the expendable time as well.

The concert took place at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe St.). The hall was established in the fall of 1982. In 2002 it underwent a $24 million Acoustical Enhancement, and includes a 2,630 people capacity. There have been times where I have attended a concert at the TSO and was disappointed with the sound balance and overall quality. When attending a Mozart concert earlier this year, I found that the French horns would dominate the woodwinds, or the bass would completely overpower melodies in other sections. This performance however, was not the case.

I found the brass to be warming yet very strong, particularly in the beginning movement. The sound was balanced and made for a very pleasant listening experience. While the brass was a powerful entity in the first movement, the balance between the woodwinds and later the underlining brass in the third movements was absolutely glorious. I found that the dynamic balance between the different instruments allowed the emotion and tension of the piece to rise to great heights and really allow the audience to become captivated. The movement that captivated me the most was the third. The way the low strings and horns were able to linger and almost hang below the woodwinds created such musical tension that I found myself on the edge of my seat, waiting for the ultimate resolution between the two groups of instruments. The strings would enter, causing some relief of tension, but would shortly drop back exposing the delicate woodwinds once again with the main melody, causing the listener to wonder if the once-lurking bass and brass would take over once more. Much to my delight, after some echoing from the strings, the woodwinds were able to finish their melody, uninterrupted. By the end of the fourth movement when the last couple of chords were being played, people were already out of their seats and applauding.

The original orchestration for the symphony contained 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, and strings. The TSO maintained the usage of these instruments, but mostly added a player in each category, making their orchestration 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 5 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba, 4 percussion, and strings.

The TSO programme states that the symphony was performed by TSO’s very own Youth Orchestra – an orchestra that showcases the talents of young adults aged 22 and under. However I distinctly remember seeing some older people performing in the orchestra, including an older clarinetist, Joaquin Valdepenas, whom I personally seek out when attending the TSO. And according to the TSO website, Valdepenas has been involved in music festivals for more than 25 years. Also, this same programme wrote that Brahms was born in 1887, died in 1897, and composed his Symphony No. 2 in 1877.

In a concert programme I found from 1862 (roughly around Brahms’ time) the concert programme states the place of the concert, the date and time, the name of the concert event, the names of soloists, and the pieces being played. Other programmes from around this same time include the conductor, sponsors or patrons, and the featured orchestra or band; however the individual names of the players within the orchestra are not. Unlike the TSO’s programme – where the names of each orchestra member are mentioned and the pages are 90% advertising – there are no bibliographical excerpts about past or present composers, nor are there explanations of the works being presented. The programmes tend to display only the essential information, and keep the writing to a bare minimum.

The concert featured the guest conductor James Gaffigan, a young American composer who is said to have a natural ease and a compelling insight for musicianship in his conducting, according to the TSO programme. In January 2010 he became the Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, and the Principle Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. At times I found the conducting hard to swallow. There were moments when it seemed like the conductor was keeping a simple 2 beat form by head banging, or by doing some sort of work out regime containing lateral pull-downs. Although I found this type of conducting to be very distracting – yet somewhat amusing – I must admit that the simplicity of the 2 beat conducting must have aided the band during the polyrhythm sections that create a Hemiola effect during the symphony. I found the musicians relied on the conductor for dynamic contrasts and tempo pulls, but were self-sufficient when it came to cues and entries.

The concert featured two performances, the first being Carnival by Dvorak, and the latter being Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. Dvorak’s Carnival in a concert overture that was a part of an overture trio representing Nature, Life, and Love, with the Carnival representing Life. So why were these two pieces put together on a programme? There are several possibilities, the first being the themes of the pieces. Carnival is representing Life, and is seen as bright and upbeat. Although Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 is seen as often dark and melancholy in certain areas, it has been regarded as one of Brahms’ more cheerful works, as its intent was to echo the season that it was created in: summer. Another reason for these featured pieces could have been due to the guest conductor. Perhaps these were pieces that he felt most comfortable conducting for an unfamiliar environment. What’s interesting about the two composers was that they were actually good friends. The music of Dvorak was especially appealing to Brahms, after Dvorak was recommended to Brahms through a committee. Dvorak was young, poor, and was an incredibly gifted composer, which Brahms admired. He even referred to Dvorak as a “real Mensch”. Brahms in turn told his publisher, Fritz Simrock, about Dvorak, who later published some of Dvorak’s works including vocal duets. If it weren’t for Brahms referring Dvorak to his publicist after being moved by the young composer, Dvorak wouldn’t have become the popular composer he became not just in Germany, but in other countries as well in such a short period of time. Dvorak was grateful for the success that Brahms had brought him, and had dedicated his String Quartet No.9 Op. 34/B35 to Brahms in 1877 (coincidentally the same year as Brahms’ Symphony No. 2).

As a composer, Brahms was very different from his contemporaries at the time. He was often compared to Bach and Beethoven, making him a part of the famous German “Three B’s”. The virtuosic performer had been reintroduced to the Romantic era, as this particular style emphasized emotion and drama. Franz Liszt is an excellent example of a virtuosic composer that put a focus on drama and emotion. Brahms on the other hand, had an admiration for the canonic composers and their styles. Unlike his contemporary Wagner, who wanted to change the rules of composing and create new ideas, Brahms focused on traditional counterpoint, harmony, and variation. This created a unique balance of classical and romantic forms and forced the listener to focus on the beauty and strength of the music, rather than the virtuosity of the composer. Brahms, more than any other composer of the romantic era, was responsible for reviving the important concept of “absolute music” – music that is just for itself to be accepted on its own terms as interplays of sound. A simple comparison between Liszt’s and Brahms’ first Piano Concertos and their introductions exemplifies the contrasting beliefs and musical preferences very clearly.

Like many romantic composers, Brahms idolized Beethoven, and often found composing to be a difficult task. When Beethoven died in 1827, he left the musical world in the shadow of his Ninth Symphony. Brahms was deeply affected by this symphony, and like most romantics, was timid to create a symphony in the Ninth’s shadow. It took Brahms fifteen years to create his first symphony. This could have been because of the pressure of the Ninth Symphony, but also because of his composing style, with most of his efforts going towards counterpoint, harmony, and variations. His Second Symphony however, only took several months, and was composed during the summer of 1877. Aside from counterpoint, harmony, and variation, melody was also very important, and the Second Symphony puts the usage of melodies to work. (Coincidentally, the only “song tune” used in his first symphony appears in the finale and resembles the “Ode To Joy” tune from Beethoven’s Ninth). David Hurwitz, author of Brahms’ Symphonies, describes the melodic tune that runs through the Second Symphony:

The form of Brahms’ tune, in three phases having the shape AAB, turns out to be significant, for every movement in the Second Symphony features a melody of this type... ...Using similar melodic shapes in each movement constitutes a particularly helpful way to create a feeling of unity throughout the symphony. ...One of the most powerful (and infrequently discussed) binding techniques is not literal repetition, but rather suggestion – the ability to hint audibly at relationships between outwardly different melodies, producing what is in effect a “family” resemblance.

Hurwitz warns that dealing with self-contained or similar melodies have risks, as really beautiful and distinctive tunes tend to resist being developed symphonically. But as critics throughout history suggest, the end result bores nothing but absolute success for Brahms.

The type of musicality that I witnessed that night was nothing out of the ordinary for Brahms. His usage of mixed styles and suggestive melodies bring great listening pleasure to those who are fortunate to be exposed to such beauty. Regardless of the ever-changing centuries, one thing will remain in time indefinitely: the shadow of Beethoven’s Ninth has been extended by the height of Brahms’ powerful music, and the shadow will continue to stretch as more people uncover the sheer beauty that is Brahms and his music.

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