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Brahms & Elgar Sing at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Oct 7th, 2018

Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now

The Orchestra Now under the baton of Leon Botstein opened its new season with the Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms and Symphony No. 1 by Edward Elgar. Not being familiar with the latter, I had no expectations, yet was pleasantly surprised. Yet I was even more heartily surprised by the introductory piece by Joseph Joachim, ably introduced by the lead clarinetist for the piece, Micah Candiotti-Pacheco.

Written at the age of 21, Hamlet Overture (1853) runs for only 16 minutes, yet it delivers a powerful dramatic experience. This offers some wonderful horn composition and arrangements as the horns appear to be the voice of Hamlet. The wonder of this presentation is that the horns, usually such an extroverted instrument, manage to come across as introverted instruments, which is something that Botstein expertly extracted. The horns expire with Hamlet’s last breath and the diminuendo trailing of the elegiac strings achieve memorable pathos. This was antique gem that the orchestra played with crisp éclat, making it shine like new.

Joseph Joachim was more famous as a violinist than composer, and he was a close friend of Brahms. They corresponded frequently and exchanged frank, critical opinions. Brahms probably wrote his violin concerto with Joachim in mind. Joachim performed the premiere (January 1, 1879) with Brahms conducting. Heavily influenced by Beethoven’s violin concerto in technique and soaring tone, it contains more jarring rhythms than Beethoven, which is why the experience of a Brahms concerto or symphony remains harder to recall: the constant and dense changes of Brahms keep the listener welded to the present. That forceful impression of the present is a wonder and kept the listener coming back, much in the same way as did Elizabethan theater (especially Shakespeare) kept crowds returning to hear Shakespeare’s magical wordplay.

Much like Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2, there is contest between instrument and orchestra. Which is greater: the singular creative voice and technique of the violin or the whole public, symphonic orchestra? The orchestra can create louder dynamics, but the violin has more radiance, dignity, and aesthetic superiority. The importance of the individual artist’s voice is what  triumphs in the end. Joachim wrote the cadenza in the first movement, which featured violinist Zhen Liu carried off with glowing flair and later captured a tender quality before joining the orchestra in agreement.

Zhen Liu was the winner of the 2017 Bard College Conservatory Concerto Cition. The technical difficulty for this violin concerto offers tremendous challenge. As the weather forecaster might say, the day may be partly sunny, which was what I thought about subsequent movements. One cannot expect a student to be Itzhak Perlman, yet Zhen Liu did have some radiant moments in sunlight.

During intermission I briefly spoke to horn player Ethan Brozka. I said: “I see you had some good action with the Joachim.” He laughed and said “Wait for the Elgar.” Ethan has been playing horn for eleven years, and yes I was delighted with the horn ensemble in Elgar. Elgar claimed that his First Symphony (1920) had no program, yet I thought I heard some motifs that were program-like.

The opening movement sounds like a tribute to London and its Edwardian heritage, then moves on to rising and falling wave dynamics before mellowing out into a gentle fluidity—it was as if he was nostalgically recalling the navy that “ruled the waves” around the globe and the attempt to export English civility to the world, yet this direction and sentiment concludes with elegiac failure. The Allegro molto appears to dramatize the horrors of the First World War. Here horns and drum provide many exciting moments. The slow Adagio supplies lamentation for the war’s casualties. The concluding Allegro opens with another elegy which is perhaps a personal lament for the death of his wife, Alice Roberts, the preceding year. The happy climax contains the life in death paradox. Perhaps London, England and Empire, and his own life will flame again in Phoenix-birth, but that hope was not to be for either England or himself as his best work was now behind him.

This Brahms-inflected symphony remains a truly great symphony (with wonderful dynamic textures) that is rarely played in the U.S. And this was the first important and successful orchestral piece by a native of England since the days of Henry Purcell. This symphony was a curious blend of personal and public sensibility and the beginning of the twentieth century revival of England as a musical hotspot.