Brahms & the Romantics: Program Notes Oct. 2nd
The towering genius of Brahms influenced many of his contemporaries, including his devoted friend Dvorák, who he also mentored.
The program opens with a Brahms-inspired work commissioned and recorded by Orli Shaham, by the young Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for October 2nd, 2016. You'll be automatically linked the next at the end.
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Brahms & the Romantics
Avner Dorman (b. 1975)
After Brahms: 3 Intermezzos for Piano
Allegro con molto appassionato
Delicatamente con molto espressione
Antonin Dvořák (1841–1904)
String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 77
Allegro con fuoco
Scherzo. Allegro vivace
Finale. Allegro assai
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60
Allegro non troppo
Finale: Allegro comodo
AVNER DORMAN (b. 1975)
The young Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman has a growing international reputation, and one important reason is pianist Orli Shaham, in whom he has found an enthusiastic and sensitive interpreter. Their shared musical interests, including composers of the late Romantic era, have prompted Shaham to commission a number of works from Dorman, including After Brahms.
Critics have noted Shaham’s "unwavering passion and exceptional understanding" of Brahms. She views Brahms' late works for solo piano as his most intense and beautiful music.
She considers them the keystone of music history's most amazing compositions and has commissioned a number of works specifically inspired by them. After Brahms is her second commission from Dorman; the first was in 2010 for the "Hebrew Melodies" collection she recorded with her brother, violinist Gil Shaham. She is effusive in her praise for After Brahms, calling it "ingenious, sensuous and powerful."
Critics, too, have been generous in their admiration of Dorman's work, praising him as a "fresh, young voice, worth following" (Gramophone). Dorman has quickly risen to become one of the more successful and renowned composers on the international scene.
Born in 1975, Dorman completed his doctoral degree as a C.V. Starr fellow at The Juilliard School, where he studied with John Corigliano, and his master's degree at Tel Aviv University, where he majored in music, musicology and physics, and studied with former Soviet composer Josef Bardanashvili. Dorman was a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center and served as composer-in-residence for the Israel Camerata from 2001 through 2003.
At the age of 25, Dorman became the youngest composer to win Israel's prestigious Prime Minister's Award for his Ellef Symphony, and that same year he was awarded the Golden Feather Award from ACUM (the Israeli Society of Composers and Publishers).
Since coming to the United States, Dorman has received several international awards from ASCAP, ACUM and the Asian Composers League.
What to Listen For
East meets West in Dorman's music. His distinctive approach to rhythm and timbre has attracted some of the world's leading conductors, including Zubin Mehta, Asher Fisch, Simone Young, David Robertson and Michael Stern to bring his music to audiences of the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Munich Philharmonic, the Vienna Radio Symphony at the Musikverein, the Hamburg Philharmonic, the Cabrillo Music Festival and others.
Dorman's music achieves a rare combination of rigorous compositional construction while preserving the sense of excitement and spontaneity usually associated with jazz, rock or ethnic music.
In Variations Without a Theme, "Dorman dispenses with a traditional theme and instead bases his entire 20-minute work on just a few musical odds and ends—a repeated note, an ornament, a few Arab-flavored scales and a half-step interval. It's all amazingly simple, but the end result is sophisticated music that cleverly explores both Eastern and Western sonic worlds" (John Pitcher, The Nashville Scene).
Masterful in his innovative use of percussion, Dorman's two percussion concertos are quickly becoming staples of the repertoire.
Omats + Aviad Bublil - Image:With Maestro Zubin Mehta.jpg (second version), (CC BY 3.0)
Zubin Mehta led the premiere of his double percussion concerto, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and subsequently performed it with the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra. Mehta presented the much-anticipated U.S. premiere of this piece with the New York Philharmonic and the Israeli percussion duo, PercaDu, in March 2009
Dorman composed After Brahms in 2014 in versions for orchestra and for solo piano. Writing about the work at that time, he noted:
The first intermezzo derives its structure and underlying texture from the left-hand arpeggios of Brahms' Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 1, and these figures appear in the lower strings and brass. While the high strings and winds evoke the original descending melodic line, they clash with Brahms' accompanimental texture both rhythmically and harmonically. The middle and low winds contend with the accompaniment as well, providing harmonic contrast. As the piece progresses the explosive elements of the texture ultimately take over, erupting energetically in both rhythm and sound.
The second intermezzo draws its inspiration from Brahms' Intermezzo, Op. 119 No. 1. The original descending arpeggios change in a series of meter shifts—each bar is one pulse longer or shorter than its predecessor, creating a pendulum-like pattern. Following an ABA-form, the middle (B) section is reminiscent of popular music of the day, much like in Brahms' original intermezzo.
In Brahms' case that piece could be a waltz, and in After Brahms, it evokes a pop song of the early 21st century. The final A section includes more syncopation and a wider palette of orchestral color. The end of the piece utilizes Brahms' original harmony while expanding the range and colors of the orchestra, closing in the deep register of the tuba.
While the last intermezzo, elegiac in its character, is not directly inspired by a specific Brahms piece, it is perhaps the most Brahmsian in its emotional expression and musical content.
The continual descending lines, the suspended lyrical inner voice and the variety of expressive cross-rhythms all recall Brahms' style. This piece explores these devices in the context of present day compositional techniques, while calling on the kind of introspection and reflection so often found in Brahms' music.
Your annotator is offering extra credit to listeners who can identify the recent pop song that Dorman references in paragraph 2 of his note.
String Quintet No. 2
ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (1841 - 1904)
Dating from 1875, Brahms's String Quintet No. 2 adds a double bass (rather than the more usual second viola) to the string quartet's basic scoring for two violins, viola and cello. If the intimacy of chamber forms takes us close to the passion within the music, this is especially true in this quintet, in which the depth of the double bass intensifies the passion and drive of the sound.
This may be one reason why Dvořák was concerned about the length of the quintet; though it was originally comprised of five movements, he withdrew the second movement, an intermezzo that was based on a movement of his String Quartet No. 4 and was one of two slow movements in the quintet's original version.
He later reworked the intermezzo and published it as the Nocturne for Strings in B Minor.
In assessing his reputation and especially his marvelous chamber works, Antonin Dvořák is one of those composers for whom the awkward modern term "compartmentalized" seems especially apt.
Although his greatness is firmly established, our knowledge of him comes to us in isolated bits—most notably his Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," which was received in the U.S. with enthusiasm without precedent in classical music performance. Whole spectacles were produced around it, yet critics don't even consider it his best symphony.
How many of its admirers know the others, or his haunting opera Rusalka, or the "Dumky" trio, one of the landmarks of the literature? Dvořák's chamber music has earned him a place among the most important chamber composers of any era.
Dvořák strongly advocated turning to authentic folk sources to find a distinctively national voice for classical compositions, and this interest is strongly reflected in his chamber music.
American critics—perhaps belatedly—admired him for living by this principle as well as promoting it.
Sculpture by Milton Hebald of Harold C Schonberg, own work, (CC BY-SA 4.0)
For three decades starting in 1950, the Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Harold C. Schonberg reigned from his desk at The New York Times as most influential arbiter of American tastes in classical music. "Smetana," he wrote, "was the one who founded Czech music, but Antonín Dvořák… was the one who popularized it." When Schonberg made this pronouncement, the American taste for Dvořák was based largely on his symphonies, especially "From the New World." His esteem here has only risen since then.
What To Listen For
With respect to his chamber music, two "compartments" of Dvořák's story spring to mind: his association with America, which he visited in 1892, and his friendship with Brahms.
He had come to the U.S. at the invitation of Jeannette Thurber to serve as director of the National Conservatory of Music. Hearing the richness of what we now call “roots music,” he was baffled by the American intelligentsia’s dismissal of folk music as primitive.
In interviews he insisted that the future of American music should be founded on what were called “Negro melodies,” a classification that also included American Indian tunes.
“These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States,” he told an interviewer in the New York Herald. “These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”
Though The String Quintet No. 2 precedes Dvořák's trip to America by more than a decade, it bears strong testimony to his advocacy of nationalism in music. In fact, it bears the dedication "To My Nation"— which was also the motto of a national competition to which he submitted the quintet. He won a prize of 5 ducats for his pains.
Though we know Dvořák's ease with melodic invention, in this quintet we hear an economy of melody balanced by insistent, energetic development that has been compared to Vivaldi in its use of incremental repetition.
This mode of writing serves to emphasize the melodies we do hear, which are in the Slavonic and Hungarian folk traditions. Rhythmic freedom and an elusive, open-air quality often called "spaciousness" are two qualities often associated with Dvořák's music, and we hear them in this quintet, both greatly magnified by the presence of the double bass.
Piano Quartet No. 3
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
If the string quartet is at the core of the chamber repertory, the piano quartet is surprisingly rare—rare enough to be something of a novelty, and worth a reminder that its basic scoring—for piano with violin, viola and cello—replaces the single voice of one violin in the basic string quartet with the expansive, polyphonic, percussive piano.
If it sounds like a simple idea, it's not, though Mozart's two piano quartets make it sound that way. It seems likely that Beethoven, who composed a set of three piano quartets in his early teens, never expected them to be published. (They were, but posthumously.)
Why such rarity? With the range and flexibility of the piano, we might guess that it would greatly expand the expressive possibilities of a grouping of four instruments; but finding a way for it to work companionably with three stringed instruments is ticklish.
Given the deceptive difficulties of the form, it is not surprising that after Mozart's success with it, we had to wait for the masterly hand of Johannes Brahms to bring it back to the fore.
He composed three piano quartets—like Beethoven, tackling this grouping when he was young (in Brahms' case, in his 20s).
He probably began writing his No. 3 when he was only 22, though its completion had to wait for two decades.
The initial sketches for this quartet came during a period of personal trial for the sensitive, guarded Brahms, when the mental illness of his friend and advocate Robert Schumann forced his confinement in an asylum.
This would have been painful enough without complicating Brahms' already complex feelings for Robert's wife Clara, the unrequited love of his life.
What to Listen For
The nicknames of symphonies and chamber works rarely come from the composers themselves and are often misleading, providing false clues that have nothing to do with the music. But in the case of Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 3, the nickname "Werther Quartet" offers fascinating associations that can deepen our listening experience.
The "Werther" in question is the protagonist of Goethe's epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which swept Germany and all of Europe with an impact we can scarcely imagine today.
Goethe's narrative, which culminates in Werther's suicide, is thought to have spurred a wave of suicide among young, artistic types across the continent—a result, many critics say, of popular misinterpretation of Goethe's writing. According to current analysis, Goethe's intent was actually to critique the melancholy self-absorption of Werther, rather than to idealize it.
Though Beethoven was just four years old and Brahms' birth was almost 60 years in the offing when Goethe wrote the story of young Werther, the novel was still relevant to the Romantic movement in Europe in 1855, and Brahms himself characterized the first movement of this quartet as a response to Werther's morbid depression.
But it seems likely that Brahms, who felt emotions deeply but didn't talk much about them, viewed The Sorrows of Young Werther as a call to get on with life rather than obsess about one's feelings. He never cited the novel in his communications with Clara despite Robert's absence.
Brahms' chamber works are generally lushly emotive, but especially in this case, ranging from a certain reticence in the first movement to an almost violent momentum in the scherzo he wrote the following year.
By the time we hear the final andante and allegro, almost two decades have elapsed in his compositional process, but his stoic ambivalence and a resolute refusal to indulge in self-pity are still much in evidence. In the emotional extremes of this quartet, we can well imagine Werther, or Brahms himself, vacillating between sad introspection and the desire to mobilize and move forward with life.
Meet the Guest Artists here
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.