Sunday afternoon was one of those rare times when I had a piece that I thought I knew well revealed to me in an entirely new, deeper, and more personal way. The piece was Brahms’ German Requiem, and the person who gave me that view was conductor Helmuth Rilling.
I’ve always loved Brahms’ Requiem. I love that he chose passages from the Bible that he felt were more appropriate for consoling the survivors than sending off the departed. I love that the first section has no violins, only the lower strings and the wind section. I love that he uses the noble sound of the trombone to great effect.
Rilling obviously loves this piece very much, too. As he talked to the orchestra and chorus at the dress rehearsal, he gave some of his insights into the piece, including the rising harp line at the close of the requiem, which he saw as Brahms’ nod to the resurrection of Christ (in a religious work that never mentions Jesus) and the ascension of the soul of the recently departed.
There was a valedictory feel to this performance – most likely it will be Rilling’s last performance of the Brahms with the Oregon Bach Festival, and he gave the performance his considerable all, and inspired some committed playing and singing from the assembled forces. It makes me anticipate the performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on July 9th and 10th (in Portland and Eugene, respectively) all the more.
I’m just entering my first weekend of the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Oregon, and there’s a lot going on at the southern end of the Willamette Valley. The OBF is starting its search for a successor to the festival’s co-founder and artistic director for the past 41 years, Helmuth Rilling. Two of the front-runners seem to be Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (and formerly Colorado Symphony) music director Jeffrey Kahane, and Matthew Halls, a young conductor, a former artistic director of the King’s Consort. Early music specialist Nicholas McGegan is also among those being considered. It’s a multi-year process that will eventually send the OBF on its new course for the next several decades.
The first concert I took part in was the opening gala featuring Yo-Yo Ma in a performance of Osvaldo Golijov‘s Azul (2006) for cello, percussion, hyper-accordion, and orchestra. Azul is a sprawling, 27 minute meditation of the evolution of the universe, and it largely succeeds in being a mood piece of epic proportions that befit its subject matter. The centerpiece of the work is a section called Transit, where the two ethnic percussionists and hyper-accordionist (the hyper-accordion is a normal accordion that is electronically enhanced to expand its range and tonal possibilities) begin a frenetic jam session with the cello soloist. The poly-rhythms and interplay between the three combo members and Ma was just amazing to watch from just feet away. Yo-Yo, as usual, played with full commitment and laser-like focus throughout. As an encore he played the sublime and prayerful Sarabande from the sixth cello Suite of J.S. Bach. Jeffrey Kahane was the conductor, and led the orchestra ably, with the first half consisting of the chamber orchestra performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and Magnificat with the expert OBF chorus.
Friday brought us our first interaction of the festival with music director Helmuth Rilling. I’ve yet to play under Helmut in a rehearsal or performance which fails to reveal something fundamental about the piece being played. His is a probing mind, constantly examining the music like a cinematographer might explore the intricacies of a location shoot. While his interpretations don’t often vary substantially from one another over several years, there are often many small changes that alter the overall trajectory of the piece in subtle ways. Friday’s rehearsal was of the great German Requiem of Johannes Brahms. It’s a piece which is hard to bring off – it doesn’t have a lot of overt drama like, say, the requiem of Verdi, for example. And tempos tend to be very non troppo in character. It can easily become a wallow rather than a majestic statement. From what we rehearsed Friday morning, it seems that Rilling is very much aware of this, and that a truly wonderful performance is in the works for Sunday afternoon at the Hult Center.
The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall is presenting a royal command performance of the Concertgebouw Orchestra with conductor Mariss Jansons and violinist Janine Jansen for free as part of Queen Beatrix’s visit to Berlin. You can get complete details and watch the taped broadcast in high-definition for free by following this link.
Janine Jansen - Photo: Felix Broede
The concert features the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.
This is one of those recordings that I’m very excited about getting my hands on. Roberto Dìaz, currently the president of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and a former principal violist of both the National Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, along with Jeremy Denk, one of the more exciting, interesting pianists playing today (and often a recital partner to Joshua Bell) have recorded the two sonatas by Johannes Brahms (originally for clarinet), along with a transcription of the G major violin sonata, for Naxos, to be released in April, 2010.
Here’s a brief video of the recording of the E-flat sonata’s first movement:
Last night was a bit of a strange concert, at least speaking for myself from my vantage point on the stage. First of all, there was the sobering sight of empty seats in the hall – lots of them. It’s not as though this is a strange program – Brahms d minor piano concerto is hardly a dark horse, and the Bartók Divertimento, while it suffers from having the composer’s name printed in the program (some concert goers just turn on their heel and walk out if they even read the name Bartók), is just about as easy going and accessible as Bartók can be. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody is just a lot of fun to play and to listen to, so I’m perplexed. Oh, and Jon Kimura Parker is an amazing pianist by anyone’s estimation, and I’m always amazed when he doesn’t fill halls like a couple of other big names manage to do. Now we have a pretty thumbs-down review from David Stabler to round out the opening night. I’m not sure quite what this was all about, except that last night’s concert started out with a performance of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in honor of Bob McClung, who passed away last week, who was our beloved stage manager. I think that performance took a lot of our energy and focus, both from the musicians and from Carlos, I think, and so the Brahms suffered somewhat in terms of drive and clarity (at least from the point of view of the orchestra’s performance, not the soloist’s). Well, we’ll see what tonight’s performance brings – hope to see you there (with a lot of your friends).
By the way – if you know someone who went last night – harass them for their ticket stub, it’ll get you in free if you exchange it for a new ticket within two hours before the start of the concert!
First, I just have to say that the First Piano Concerto of Brahms is even better than I remembered it. I think the last time we performed it was with Peter Serkin, and that was an amazing series of performances, but this time, with Jon Kimura Parker, and with the orchestra playing so well, it was simply sublime at rehearsal today. Jon just has the most amazing, lush sound on the piano, and it is the perfect sort of sonority for this piece. He can also play with a very, very full sound, but without crashing or clanging. It just looks and sounds effortless. Incredible.
Second, I spotted this nice little short film about Pink Martini today that is worth taking a look at:
And third, well, there is no third item, so have a good evening!