Tag Archives: Brahms

BUDAPEST FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA at San Francisco Symphony; Part One: All Brahms

november-28-29-30-Fischer-270x180On Sunday, January 25, Ivan Fischer led  the extraordinary Budapest Festival Orchestra in an all Brahms  program: Symphony No. 3 in F maj. Op. 90, and Symphony No.1 in C min., Op 68. Those individuals anywhere near San Francisco’s Civic Center will have seen a rounded, disk shape flying low and close to City Hall and the Opera House. It was the roof of Davies Symphony Hall which had lifted up and off the Hall at the conclusion of Symphony No. 1. What caused the lift off? Was it the energy created by the music itself or the force of the audience opening its four thousand eyes, leaning back and saying “oh!” surprised at its own exaltation? Sitting here, in Mountain View, just down the road from NASA Ames Research Center, one may leave the aeronautics to them, but it was not an unidentified flying object.170px-JohannesBrahms It was pure music rearranging the world. Symphony No. 3 opened the program. It is gorgeous, Brahms music which seems big enough to embrace the whole world. Mr. Fischer’s presentation took 7 fewer minutes than the older recording I listened to days later, wanting more of the experience. The BFO version was not rushed. It contained a sense of purpose and drive that made the whole symphony seem to pour forth without a pause. It opens with the Allegro con Brio making a declaration, presenting both a gentle dance and a struggle. There is an interplay amongst the strings in which their music seems to overlap like weaving. Despite the certain darkness behind the sprightly dance, a more positive theme re-emerges through the assault. There is no story or characterization in the music, and yet it is necessary to communicate its essence in the drama of language. This music carried in it the sweetness of our universe, even though the universe is impersonal forces. The Allegretto moves like the swaying of planets; it is so big and still intimate. It builds up to an enfolding theme that communicates human devotion. The winds suggest steps. Are they steps through the stars or human steps climbing lightfootedly through hills, rocking, turning through mists? The final, Allegro movement is busy, restless, quiet and suddenly louder. It surprises the listener and somehow suggests: we should have known. The call and response of the second movement reappears to remind us we were given hints and signs. In fact, we were shown. A spontaneous thought comes: “oh, no!” at the determined rebuilding of the music. It is wrestling with an angel. The horns make an announcement as they come over the hill, fighting and elevating at the same time. It is quiet music of our own atmosphere. Looking back, it brought to mind Robert Frost’s observation that “Earth’s the right place for love.” That is despite our limitations and because of them. There is Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 to encompass and present the love of Earth and the impossible human condition, the unbearable human condition which we might accept through Brahms’ triumph of beauty and understanding. Ivan Fischer Photo: Marco Borggrevepictures: Ivan Fischer, Johannes Brahms, Ivan Fischer. The Symphony No. 1 has a misleading title. It is Brahms’ first symphony, but when he wrote it he was hardly a beginner. While music writers make much of how long Brahms waited to write his symphony and that he worked on it at least 15 years, he created chamber music, choruses, songs, piano music, and, for the orchestra, a piano concerto, two serenades, and the mighty German Requiem while some in the music world stood tapping their feet and looking at their calendars for that missing masterpiece, the symphony. Brahms pointed out, “you have no idea what it”s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you.” He meant Beethoven. He knew what was expected of him, but no one but Brahms knew how he would create his new symphony, a wholly Brahmsian symphony, when he was ready. It is fair for Symphony No. 1 to be called “the giant,” at about 45 minutes it is longer than the average symphony. It also is bigger in every sense. Two of the four movements use the notation, “sostenuto,” and sustained is definitely a word that matches the magnificent work. It has a complexity of themes and musical journeys in it, and all of them are so intricately worked together that each element seems to exist only as a part of the whole. This is a great work whose conception and invention upon close examination might make 21st century persons think it could only be worked out on a computer which could handle all the different threads of music. However, they would be wrong. Brahms carried so much of music and life in his being that the complexity he knit together also carries in its entirety the soul of human culture. It is not a Jeopardy contest. HIs symphony is a life and death matter. He found the answer is unity, and then he found the way to make it. It opens with repeated beats of the timpani. A musical anthem appears briefly, wrapping in and out of the whole design. The world grows quiet. There are challenges on all sides. A theme repeats like the delicate steps of feet on rocks crossing water. The timpani comes back and the plucked strings play out a mystery. Rhapsodic music comes and drifts off, marching is heard under the swelling music, a horn calls from afar. We are in a strange world or a familiar world which we have never looked at before. The Andante Sostenuto is smooth but never lulling. It seems to make demands but circles away to an embrace. Even in its quiet mood it is always bringing energy and spirit higher and stronger. It is like a sunrise but with a strong pulse behind it; there is always an awareness of darkness. The third movement does that thing that Brahms does. The listener suddenly finds her face drenched in tears never having thought, this will make me cry. It opens with a lovely, lively rhythmic tune like a child playing on the grass; the winds dance together.

BFOrchThen, a change to the amazing theme that grabs at the heart. It repeats with more emphasis, quiet steps in between, grows bigger, then quiet as the first theme comes back, reconsiders its place until all the music simply blows away. Brahms now shows us that music is made of silence as well as sound. Single notes pop into space. There is a long rest; again single notes pop into the environment as a sustained building of sound surges. After calm anticipation, the heart wringing theme returns, this time sounding positive and certain. It announces: I am here. This is all. It unwinds as there is a return of rushing, hurried, insistent music. Out of this a sound quietly asserts itself; a flute joins in until the whole orchestra marches forth to counter it. That theme returns, still certain. It is our anthem, and it persists even with the dark reminders from horns and strings. We come back. The dance elaborates itself struggling through the reworking of the theme. There are storms, threats; the theme slows, pauses, but never stops. It briefly becomes almost a lullaby. We are back to the dance on the hillside. One instrument is answered by the whole orchestra. The weather changes. A drum sounds as though the symphony is ending, but the music goes on, the clouds are clearing. There is the moment of  take off; the music quickens; the horns announce: we are here. In a succession of counts; one, two, one two three it is over. The immense, mysterious experience is over. We knew that would happen; we did not know how; we did not really believe it would come. At this performance, the audience, stunned and inspired, wore out its hands applauding. The BFO musicians stood up and scrambled, moved from their places to other places, all holding sheet music. They sang a capella an Evening Serenade,Brahms’ Sommerabend, Op. 85, no.1, written for a poem by Heinrich Heine. It was beautiful.

YEFIM BRONFMAN with San Francisco Symphony

YBronfmanYefim Bronfman, pianist noble, performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, January 22, 2015. For those who were listening, their hearts could never be the same. The performance was awe inspiring. Mr. Bronfman plays with power and tenderness. Brahms gave him a masterpiece of emotion that waves over all like a force of nature, and Bronfman was the right master to make it real. Much though it captures that inevitability of nature, the wave following the next wave, it is a work of human art. Mr. Bronfman succeeded brilliantly at bringing that force to life bigger than life. It reaches into one and brings back memories and feelings that one was not aware of having. A woman leaving Davies Hall, said to me, “I can’t help it.” She was talking about her tears; she could not help it because why they came was a mystery. It is ravishing music which Mr. Bronfman created in the most immediate, stunning way. Music is a physical thing. It changes the air around us. It takes physical effort to make music. One could see Mr. Bronfman’s left foot beating out a rhythm on the floor, alternating with his right foot on and off the pedal. His touch on the piano is light, and he brings out the lyricism and loveliness of Brahms’ seemingly endless soul of gorgeous melodies. Hats off to Michael Grebanier, Principal ‘Cellist of the SFS, for the beautiful ‘cello solo he played in tandem with the piano. The silken sound of the ‘cello made the audience hold its breath at these amazing musical moments. It was an astonishing performance.

BrahmsABergpictures: above, Yefim Bronfman; L-Rt, Brahms, Berg

The SFS also performed Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra. Maestro Tilson Thomas addressed the audience to explain what would happen in the music and put everyone at ease about hearing reputedly difficult music. Seeing Robin Sutherland, SFS Keyboardist, seated at the celesta, one could expect something magical.In fact, it was very magical music with rhythmic inventions and interesting use of stillness. The Three Pieces are Praeludium: Slow; Reigen: A little hesitant at first-Light and winged; Marsch: Moderate march tempo. There are moments when the music is not only light/not heavy but seems to be light/not darkness. It suggests the movement of light as we see it reflected on an insect’s wing or changing the face of water. It races, alters our perceptions, bounces off of surfaces as it changes its meter. The concluding Marsch reveals that this is not coming to a good end. There is a collapse of structure. Berg called for the “large hammer ‘with non-metallic tone.'” It is an ending that brings to an end all the light and lightness that preceded it. This is MIchael Tilson Thomas’ 20th Anniversary as Music Director & Conductor and his 70th birthday. MTT’s gift for the art of program planning as well as bringing out the best of the wonderful SFS musicians is an ongoing celebration.

Helene Grimaud & San Francisco Symphony

HGrimaudThe astonishing Helene Grimaud performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op 15 (1858), with the SFSymphony, Feb. 6, 2014, at Davies Symphony Hall. Ms Grimaud’s performance was powerful, expressive of the deep emotions in the great work. She is a pianist whose affinity for Brahms has offered both wonderful performances and recordings. Listening to the concerto is an intense experience. Brahms never dodges the emotions and does not mind calling on the audience to pay heed to the interworkings of piano and orchestra, changes of rhythm, a lyricism which is not soothing. In fact, Brahms does not seem to mind if one is not comfortable.This is edge of your seat music.BrahmsHeleneGrimaud. The music can swirl like a rip tide in deep water. It has a force which could sweep one away. It brings to mind images for which one might have yearned but never reached. Writers often find autobiographical detail in this concerto. Brahms’ friend and champion, Robert Schumann, had tried to drown himself in the Rhine in 1854. Schumann was sent to an asylum where he died, in 1856. Schumann and his wife, Clara, had 7 children. Brahms spent time visiting Schuman, helping Clara, helping with the children. Brahms and Clara: who knows? Seeing them through 21st century eyes is not so helpful. Yet their devotion to each other and to Schumann was total. So, is it a game to identify which movement is Robert Schumann and which is Clara Schumann and which is Brahms’ sense of loss? Oh, please, let’s not go there! Johannes Brahms was a great, earth-shakingly great composer. He worked with music and invented music. If he wanted to write a play, he could have done that instead. The concerto is about the music. If memories, images, emotions are called into being by it, that is its life. The concerto embraces the intertwining of music, love, and life. Sadness is there because it is real, and Brahms is always real. Ms Grimaud played with feeling completely in tune with Brahms. She spent herself entirely in service of the music. It was an extraordinary performance by Symphony and soloist.                                                                       


The SF Symphony offered Metaboles, by Henri Dutilleux, and La Valse, by Maurice Ravel, after intermission. The SFS was an exuberant, well-tuned instrument as conducted by Lionel Bringuier. Metaboles, though a little intimidating to read about, was a poetic and interesting piece. The composer was concerned with finding the correct form for each of the five movements. For example, Obsessionnel: Scherzando and Torpide: Andantino. It was fascinating music played with precision that did not take away from the rhythmic and melodic pleasure of the piece. La Valse is dramatic and threatening. Ravel’s affection for Johann Strauss had moved him to write a waltz tribute; World War I intervened. La Valse is imbued with the harsh sounds of irony. Couples may be dancing together, but they are out of step and off center, like a chandelier about to crash on a party. The music gets faster and –perhaps Maestro Bringuier was excited–extremely loud (as occasionally happened in the concerto). It is not the charming waltz of days gone by but the future’s dance of terror. Pictures: top, Helene Grimaud; L to Rt: Brahms, H.Grimaud, Lionel Bringuier, Maurice Ravel