Even those with mere peripheral interest in classical music cannot resist the charm of Johannes Brahms’ Second Symphony which was played by The Orchestra Now under the baton of conductor Fabio Luisi, the new Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater this past Tuesday night. Pairing this renowned gem with an important, yet less famous work, Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16, with featured pianist Alessandro Taverna from Italy, provided a welcome repast. Hard to imagine a more felicitous program to welcome Spring!
The arresting thunder-roll of a three-octave timpani rumble by percussionist Miles Salerni (Brahms’ tribute to Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor), transports one to a Nordic Romantic storm of rugged countryside. Salerni's introduction was illuminating and genial. During intermission Violist Lucas Goodman, who composed the program notes on Grieg, told me during intermission that he was really impressed by Luisi as a conductor, and this was certainly borne out by the orchestra’s robust performance.
Greig’s youthful piano concerto has no program associated with it, yet I could not help thinking that the four movements charted a single day: thunder-roll sunrise, a pleasant afternoon with a sudden downpour, the tenderness of a colorful sinking sunset with which Alessandro Taverna, playing from memory, was so sensitively eloquent, and nighttime dancehall folk gathering that featured in 2/4 time a crescendo shower before the climatic thunderstorm drenching that concludes the concerto with satisfactory wonder. Allessandro was cleanly bright on the Italian Fazoli piano with the lighter luster of its Romantic timbre. Leah Stevens was impressive in a short solo. Luisi was impishly meticulous in his ardent direction.
Although Brahms had labored for nearly twenty years on his First Symphony, his Second Symphony in D major, Op. 73, was written quickly in the summer of 1877 and premiered in December of that year. Sometimes nicknamed “Pastoral,” this cheerful symphony opens with two lullaby melodies Brahms had written, perhaps as a tribute to his mother. While Violinist Dillon Robb wrote the program notes on Brahms, bassist Luke Stence delivered a most amusing and eloquent introduction to Brahms by speaking of the rapidity of bass notes in Brahms, those perhaps being a tribute to Brahms’ bass-playing father.
While this symphony is lighter and more translucent than his first, Brahms did not eschew the dramatic soaring of horns as clarinets, oboes, and flutes leading the lyrical 3-4 waltz-like stroll through a tourist countryside of southern Austria, redolent with sunlight blessing both lake and mountain views. Idyllic Pörtschach is now the site of an annual International Johannes Brahms Competition. While Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is usually considered his greatest symphony, my own personal preference remains the Second because of its spontaneous ease and delightful clarity, despite it being difficult for musicians to play with its sea of black notes. The end of the third movement appears to recall a gentle sunset on lake and mountain. Concertmaster Yurie Mitsuhashi and French horn player Luke Baker distinguished themselves with precision; cellist Kelly Knox dazzled with the elevated avidity of her intense performance. Luisi was in his exalted element: delivering an Otherworldly performance, especially in the crescendo and finale, as he conjured incredible unity and decisive precision from the orchestra. The enthusiastic applause from the audience clearly gratified the winsome conductor.
I’ve often savored the pleasure of hearing Brahms on good recordings yet being there for a live, ecstatic performance remains another thing entirely.