Sunday, April 3, 2011

Oh, to have lunch with Brahms

This weekend’s Atlanta Symphony concert was conducted by Roberto Abbado, who has been a frequent guest conductor over the last few years.
The concert began with a piece by Michael Kurth, an ASO bass player.  This fanfare is title “May Cause Dizziness” which had less to do with the actual music itself and more to do with Mr. Kurth’s prescription label.  When I noticed that the kick drum, Hi-hat, and other pop-music percussion were on stage, I was a bit wary.  These mash ups of symphonic music and pop music often results in bad classical music and bad pop music.  It can be the worst of both worlds.  I can’t say that my mind was changed by Kurth’s piece, although I did like his symphonic writing.  It was a nice addition to the fanfare parade done this year to honor Maestro Spano’s 10-years with the ASO.

The next piece was Franz Joseph Hayden’s Symphony No. 93 in D Major (  This piece is notable for its musical “fart” joke played by the bassoon.  Hilarity ensued, just not for me.
Next was Bela Bartok’s Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra (, with Peter Serkin as soloist.  I am an admirer of Bartok’s music, particularly “The Miraculous Mandarin,” “Concerto for Orchestra, and “Music for Strings, etc.”  His orchestration is brilliant and his music is innovative and challenging.  “Music” has influenced more TV shows and movies than can be counted on several sets of fingers and toes.  I previously reviewed a performance by the Ehnes Quartet of his Forth String Quartet, which also contains aggressive and colorful music and instrumental effects.  His third piano concerto is mild in comparison.  It is lyrical and almost romantic.  There is only an occasional hint of his earlier brashness.  Nevertheless, it is a pleasant piece that was very well played by Serkin and the ASO.  And, ture to form, after it was over, the audience gave its obligatory standing O. 

The final piece was Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor.  I make no secret that Brahms is my favorite composer.  I think he was unparalleled in writing beautiful melodies and developing them with great mastery.  I had actually not hears the first symphony is some time because I had become overly familiar with it.  I remember hearing the masterful William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in an iconic performance of this piece.  So, to some extent, I was hearing this Brahms First “with new ears.”  Well- the wait was worth it.  From the breathtakingly strong introduction, with a great contrabassoon part, to the beautiful melody in the final movement, the symphony is replete with wonderful sounds.  I like so much that neither Brahms nor his publishers attempted to add a story or title to his symphonies.  They are simply great music that needs nothing other than a good orchestra and conductor to make them soar.  And his music received just that this weekend.  Abbado seemed to enjoy the music while conducting and the ASO may not have sounded better than in this performance.  The strings had a wonderful sheen- I suspect that David Coucheron is having quite an influence on this.  Laura Ardan, the principal clarinetist, and Elizabeth Koc, the principal oboist were particular standouts in the wind section.  Juan de Gomar always manages to have is contra-bassoon, be heard but never distracting.  The horns were also quite good.  Brahms frequently orchestrated portions of his music to blend together the horns and woodwinds.  A misstep in either section can be awful, but the ASO handled it beautifully.    This was a great performance of a great symphony.  Mr. Abbado and the orchestra received four curtain calls and a standing ovation, this time, it was truly deserved.  

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