Brahms Festival 2016

Brahms Festival 2016

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

For the next three weeks, my hometown orchestra will be celebrating the music of Johannes Brahms.  My musical brother from another mother, Mike, would say the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is inflicting the music of Brahms on its audience.  He is not a fan of Brahms, to say the least, and honestly has some valid criticisms to voice.  Brahms has been a bit of an acquired taste for me, and I have grown to have an appreciation for old Johannes.  Seriously, how bad could a guy be that hung out at a tavern named “The Red Hedgehog”?

Press Release for Detroit Symphony Orchestra Brahms Festival, 2016


Previous years have seen the Detroit Symphony Orchestra celebrate the symphonies of Beethoven in a winter festival, and the music of Tchaikovsky in another festival.  Each winter celebration of these composers was followed up by a digital music release made from the live performances.  I have very much enjoyed the Beethoven Symphony cycle and the set of Tchaikovsky Symphonies  in which Maestro Leonard Slatkin led the orchestra.  There has not been an official announcement that there will be a similar collection of downloadable music made available from the Brahms Festival this year, but I have high hopes that it would happen.

Johannes Brahms resisted writing a symphony for a long time, so even his First Symphony is a mature work.  The truth is, Brahms very much felt the weight of the legacy that Beethoven had left, and was very self-conscious about the comparisons that any symphony he made would have to Beethoven’s.  His buddy Robert Schuman published an article when Brahms was only 20 years old, proclaiming Brahms a sort of musical messiah who was  “destined to give ideal expression to the times.”  This made the already self-critical Brahms even more self-critical for the rest of his career.  Johannes had a habit of burning musical manuscripts he didn’t want performed or published, to prevent posterity from seeing anything but what he thought were his best efforts.  We don’t know how many symphonies Brahms wrote and then fed to the fire before he let one be performed and published.

I really like the idea of a concentrated immersion in one composer’s works over several concerts and several weekends.  I wish I could attend all of the concerts in this year’s Brahms Festival with the DSO.  Alas, everyday life will present too many obstacles to make that possible.

Brahms Symphony N0. 1

Second Thoughts

Second Thoughts

_52193219_orchestra464_apNext month I will be attending one of the subscription concerts performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  My free time is frankly, very limited, but I still find it so very important to attend live music whenever possible.  There are so many different ways to listen to music in this modern world, but some music was written and intended to be consumed with one’s full attention.  The best way for me to accomplish that is to be in the concert hall, inaccessible to the rest of my life’s obligations for a couple of hours.  My focus is entirely on the performance, without any distractions.  

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra usually programs at least one weekend when they perform a big bloated late romantic symphony, often by Gustav Mahler or Anton Bruckner.  It is a highlight of the subscription series for me, and I try to make myself available to hear the performance.  This year features Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, his “Resurrection Symphony”.  It was first performed in 1895.  The Second is one of my favorite Mahler symphonies, and was one of the most popular during his own lifetime.  Our buddy Gustav often composed his symphonies over a two year process.  He did the bulk of his work over the summers, while he was off from his conducting duties.  He composed usually in a little private hut, with piano and desk, away from his main house.  The first summer he would write the music and generate a “short” score, and the next summer he would put the finishing touches on the work and create the full orchestral score.  His Second symphony did NOT follow this pattern, and actually took him much longer to complete the work as we know it.

The first movement of the symphony was completed in 1888.  On the title page of the manuscript, this movement has the heading “Todtenfeier”, which is german for “Funeral Rites”.  Underneath that, Gustav wrote “Symphony in C minor” and “Movement I”, both of which he crossed out.  For a few years, he seemed to have decided against adding more movements to the “Todtenfeier” and treated it as a self-contained symphonic poem.  Mahler was consumed with his thoughts on death and the afterlife.  Constantin Floros writes in his book on Mahler’s symphonies:

FlorosMahler’s thinking often centered around metaphysical and eschatological questions.  All aspects of metaphysics – ontology, cosmology, religious problems and existentialism – fascinated him.  The meaning of existence and the paradox of death and dying preoccupied him to such an extent that one might speak of a metaphysical agony.  In order to find solutions to metaphysical and eschatological problems, he engrossed himself in philosophy and the natural sciences.”

Mahler’s thoughts on eschatology (of death, judgement, heaven and hell) are what are on display in the 85 minute long Second Symphony.  Lighthearted little romp in the concert hall, I know, but really pretty concise given the scope of what Gustav was trying to convey.  Mahler vacillated over time on whether he wanted to provide programs for his symphonies. Originally, he provided some form of a story to go with each of his first four symphonies but then, withdrew them.  He came around to the idea that his music should portray such programs so effectively that the listener did not need to be provided with a written cheat sheet spelling it out.  When he did provide some written words for Symphony No. 2, they generally focused on the questions “Why have you lived?  Why have you suffered? Is this all just a terrible joke?”.  

The first movement “Totenfeier” therefore is a Mahlerized vision of death, the inevitable gateway to any form of the afterlife.  It is a sprawling, dramatic, fist shaking death, not going gently into the good night, and laid out in a long sonata form.  There is exposition, development, more development, recapitulation and coda all over 20-22 minutes in performance.  Since Mahler wrote almost exclusively orchestral songs and symphonies, I always looked at how he drew from the past symphonic repertoire.  There is a clear comparison of Mahler’s second and Beethoven’s ninth, for example, as both end with a choral finale in the last movement.  What I have recently thought about is how much Mahler was aware of Beethoven’s late music, particularly his last string quartets.  The expanded number of movements, and the apotheosis of sonata form seem to be things that Gustav found in Ludwig’s late quartets.  The intensity found in those chamber works are now used by Mahler with a full orchestral palette, constantly developing the musical material.  Even the recapitulatory material is not an exact repeat of the exposition, and dramatic expression becomes much more important than clarity of form.  

All of the stormy portrayal of death in the first movement is very strongly contrasted with a very pleasant second movement, an Andante moderato in a five part song form with coda.  It is typical of Mahler to include music of huge contrast in the same symphony.  The great aesthetic challenge for Gustav is to create at the same time some sense of unity, and the feeling that all of this extraordinary contrasting movements belong together in some way.  Through the second movement and raucous third movement scherzo, I think Mahler is still relying on some of the conventions of a standardized symphony cycle (with Sonata form, slow movement, minuet or scherzo, and finale).  These are the elements that were still part of his conception of what made a symphony a symphony, and not something else.  

It is the fourth movement where Gustav takes a left turn away from conventional expectations.  Here Mahler gives us an orchestral song, “Urlicht” (Primal light), with a text taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of anonymous German folk poems.  Mahler set ten or twelve of these poems to music at one time or another, and included material either from Wunderhorn or based on Wunderhorn in each of his first four symphonies.  The German text reads:

O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!

and in English Translation is:

O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

The song is a brief five minute movement that almost seems out of proportion to the other long-winded movements.  By including it in that very place in the symphony , Mahler introduces the voice to his orchestral toolbox for this work, and the song functions as a sort of prelude to the big box finale movement.  The five minutes of the song are worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2,  fourth movement “Urlicht”

The massive finale is itself in two large chunks, the first dealing with judgement day, and the second containing Mahler’s choral vision of resurrection.  Mahler spent a good deal of time contemplating the finale, and was concerned with creating a movement of equal weight to the opening movement to balance the symphony properly.  It was in March of 1894 that Gustav made the final decision to include a chorus in the last movement.  Mahler had attended the memorial service of his friend and fellow conductor,  Hans von Bülow. During the memorial, a choir sang a setting of a German poem Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection), by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.  In Mahler’s words, “This hit me like lightning, and everything appeared clearly and distinctly before me!”.  The inspiration for the finale was crystallized in his mind, and Gustav went directly to work.  He used the first two strophes of the poem by Klopstock, and added six more of his own.  The text became the basis of a cantata that is the second half of the finale.  Two vocal soloists and a full chorus are featured along with the full force of a large orchestra.  The words are critical to understanding the true message of Mahler’s composition.


In Original German:

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
Wirst du, Mein Staub,
Nach kurzer Ruh’!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben
wird der dich rief dir geben!
Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die starben!
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt,
Was du gestritten!
O glaube
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!
Was entstanden ist
Das muß vergehen!
Was vergangen, auferstehen!
Hör’ auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!
O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
Dir bin ich entrungen!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
In heißem Liebesstreben,
Werd’ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!


In English Translation:

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.
To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!

The large scale musical voyage from darkness into light is something that you can find in more than one symphonic work.  Beethoven did it in his Fifth and Ninth symphonies, and Mahler takes us on this trip again in his own Fifth and Eighth symphonies.  I look forward to visiting Orchestra Hall and hearing the cathartic live performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony.  It is definitely one of those things everyone should have the chance to do at least once.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 “The Resurrection”, Leonard Bernstein conducting London Symphony Orchestra


Digital Tchaikovsky in Detroit

Digital Tchaikovsky in Detroit

dso BeethovenThe crown jewel of music performance venues in Detroit is Orchestra Hall, the anchor of the Max M. Fisher Center.  It is the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the acoustics of the hall are simply world-class.  You can choose your seat based on the view you would like, but the music sounds fantastic from every seat in the house.  In recent years the orchestra has made some wonderful live recordings.  In 2013, Music Director Leonard Slatkin led the DSO in a series of concerts comprising a Beethoven Festival.  This series included all of the Beethoven symphonies, and were made into a digital cycle available through a service called Instant Encore.  Fans of classical music can argue for hours about which is their favorite collection of Beethoven symphonies, but no matter how many you have, there is always room for one more.  The DSO sounds great in these live recordings, and it is well worth a listen.

Beethoven, The Nine Symphonies, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

dso tchaik The formula must have had some success, as Slatkin and the DSO have done it again.  The 2015 season included a Tchaikovsky Festival, and this last weekend saw the release of a live album of all six Tchaikovsky symphonies.  This time the digital recording was made available on iTunes, and I pre-ordered the cycle as soon as I heard it was going to be available.  I was not disappointed in the least.  The sound of the recordings is absolutely fantastic.  Tchaikovsky is known for his lush orchestration and wonderful melodies, and the acoustics of Orchestra Hall show off the sound of the orchestra at its finest.  The strings are lush, the woodwinds clear, and the brass is warm and powerful in all the right moments.  I think classical music fans have several good choices to pick from when it comes to recordings of Tchaikovsky, but this new album should make just about everyone’s short list of favorites.


 Tchaikovsky, 6 Symphonies, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin

For full disclosure, I will tell you that this is not any sort of paid review (I wish it was!!).  I purchased my own copy of the recordings, and make not a single cent if you actually purchase a copy.  I am a big fan of my hometown orchestra.  I came of age during the time when Neeme Jarvi was music director, and now get to enjoy another special time with Maestro Slatkin serving in that position.  I eagerly downloaded tracks the first day the album was available and started listening.  I, of course, skipped to the end and listened to my favorite work first, the Sixth Symphony.  Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “CSI: Saint Petersburg”, wherein I included some of the history and mystery around the Sixth and final symphony of Peter Tchaikovsky.  It is one of the most moving and gut wrenching works in the orchestra repertoire. Donald Tovey writes about Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:

It is not for merely sentimental or biographical reasons that Tchaikovsky’s sixth and last symphony has become the most famous of all his works.  Nowhere else has he concentrated so great a variety of music within so effective a scheme; and the slow finale, with its complete simplicity of despair, is a stroke of genius which solves all the artistic problems that have proved most baffling to symphonic writers since Beethoven.”

The symphonies of Tchaikovsky are beautiful, melodic works which are audience favorites year after year.  This new cycle from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is a worthy addition to anyone’s collection.  If you have never heard the works, this album would be a fine place to start.  Great performances from a great orchestra in a legendary hall with a master conductor.  What more could you ask for?