published Friday, January 31st, 2014

Brahms warms the spirits of symphony patrons in Chattanooga

By Mel Wilhoit

Another chilly night in the Scenic City challenged patrons of the Chattanooga Symphony to brave the elements as they gathered for an evening of “All Brahms” on Thursday. Within the warm environs of the Tivoli Theater, Maestro Kayoko Dan led her forces in two major works by the famed bachelor composer, Johannes Brahms.

Brahms, who always felt himself under the shadow of the mighty Beethoven, took nearly 40 years to compose his first symphony, completing only four during his lifetime (in comparison to Beethoven’s 9, Mozart’s 41, and Haydn’s 104). Thursday’s offering was the composer’s “Symphony No. 3 in F Major,” Op. 90, (1883) often considered his most “sunny” or inviting—an appropriate choice for this time of year.

The work is usual in possessing four standard movements but unusual in that each of them ends quietly—avoiding typical Romantic bombast. Yet, the work contains real warmth and passion, possibly inspired by the 50-year-old composer’s infatuation with the 26-year-old Hermine Spiess who stirred the composer to write art songs and apparently shared some level of mutual attraction. For the romantic and musical sleuth, it is fun to search the work for clues to such influences, as Brahms was fond of hiding all kinds of musical puzzles and biographical references in his works.

Looming over this concert was the simple fact that the weather had scuttled most of the CSO’s scheduled rehearsals for this program, so what they performed sometimes lacked a little polish — but not much. While movement one was a bit ragged in spots, movement two offered lovely and sensitive woodwind playing. The ardent and sweeping theme of movement three showcased fine work, characterized by the gentle interweaving of countless melodic ideas. And the finale even showed some

flashes of fire and passion, generally lacking in the earlier movements. Overall, this demanding and familiar work was solidly played and proved quite an impressive feat with only one rehearsal. Bravo.

Brahms’ “Piano Concerto No. 1 in d minor,” Op. 15, began life as a symphony in the composer’s mind but eventually found form as a three-movement concerto, with its debut performance in 1859 with the gifted composer at the piano.

The designated soloist for this performance was the Scottish pianist Geoffrey Duce, who enjoys a dual career as both a performer and a pedagogue. While his list of accomplishments is impressive, even more so was his equanimity and poise—not to say his remarkable performance—after being stranded for 40 hours in the Atlanta airport and just arriving earlier in the day.

With hardly a decent rehearsal under their musical belts, Maestro Dan decided to make the second half of the concert into an “open rehearsal” with starts and stops for corrections or polishing. The men of the orchestra removed their jackets and ties during intermission, and a decidedly more casual atmosphere ensued. To make the virtual rehearsal seem more believable, Kayoko Dan had a large clock brought to the stage that is used during rehearsals to begin and end, precisely on time.

Overall, the stops were minimal and didn’t negatively hinder the flow of the music. Duce played with a commanding touch, a liquid legato, and a dramatic flair. He constantly displayed an easy mastery over a concerto that lacks any big tunes and can tend toward feeling fragmented as Brahms seems to address a more serious side of life. However, with the exciting finish, the audience leaped to its collective feet in appreciation for Geoffrey Duce’s imposing display of music-making and perseverance. We trust he will return soon under more favorable conditions.

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