Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2, in B-flat Major, Op. 83
When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar!
A silly old schoolroom joke, maybe, but one that hides a truth. Because we have to, we all of us use language to label things, give them names, pin them down. But things often refuse to be defined or limited in this way. And that’s as true of works of art as it’s true of everything else we see and experience.
Brahms was famously a joker, and his friends were sometimes irritated by this. When he finished this Second Piano Concerto, he amused himself by telling them it was "a very small piano concerto" and even just "some little piano pieces." It’s nothing of the kind, of course; it’s one of the mightiest and grandest of all piano concertos. In fact…
When is a piano concerto not a piano concerto? Perhaps, when it is almost a symphony.
Jokes and irony, like Brahms’s on this occasion, often conceal anxiety and a desire to hide. And there is something about this concerto so huge and muscular that makes it seem very different from all those other 19th century concertos which, like a sports event, feature a virtuoso piano soloist versus the orchestra. In this piece, the spectacularly tough and beautiful piano part and the equally tough and beautiful orchestral music seem to flow into one another, like surging currents in the ocean.
This flow of sound – back and forth, in and out, and mingling in a hundred different ways – unquestionably stemmed from Brahms’s distinctive approach to the piano, his own instrument. He was, we know, a magnificent player, and in Brahms’s compositional mind everything either stemmed from the piano or returned to it. That is why he made wonderful two-piano versions of his symphonies (composed at the same time as the familiar orchestral versions) and why so many of his chamber works – violin and cello sonatas, piano trios, string quartets and quintets – also exist as two-piano works. In fact, many of these versions were written for him to play with his friends, and especially with Clara Schumann. And if you listen to them, you find that they often differ in their details from the familiar versions, as though his mind were constantly wondering how many different ways a single musical idea might be imagined.
In other words, any piece of music – indeed, any musical idea – can also become another musical piece or another musical idea.
And that’s what happens in this concerto. Melodies, rhythms, textures, colors, musical details of every kind are thrown back and forth between the piano and the orchestra, in such a way that our ears are dazzled and we start to hear resemblances, echoes and connections in the strangest places.
And – as in his symphonies (but this was unusual for a concerto in his time) – he constructs the piece as four movements, four contrasted scenes: a powerful opening one; a dazzling scherzo, like a wild dance; a gorgeous slow movement, with a cello solo with one of this composer’s most unforgettable tunes; and another wild dance for the finale.
And the music of the first movement drifts and spills into the third movement; and, similarly, the music of the second movement drifts and spills into the fourth movement.
Yes, of course, this is a piano concerto. But it is so many other things at the same time, perhaps even things for which we do not have a name.
Gity Razaz: New Commissioned Work WORLD PREMIERE
Gity Razaz is a young American composer from an Iranian background who has been drawing a great deal of attention recently for her highly sensuous and attractive music.
While we cannot of course know what she is going to write in answer to this commission from the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, you can get a feel for who she is and what she is after and what her music sounds like, by visiting her excellent website at www.gityrazaz.com
Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70
Dvořák is world-famous today as the greatest of all Czech composers, and the musical voice of his people’s painful longing to be a free and independent nation when they were still locked up in the 19th century within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and ruled by a German-speaking and deeply autocratic and anti-democratic emperor in Vienna. And when the composer came to the United States in the 1890s, his patron, the New York philanthropist Mrs. Thurber, explicitly announced she had invited him to this country "to teach the Americans to write American music."
In other words, Dvořák was understood by his contemporaries all over the world – and is still understood this way – as a composer writing about those supposedly very modern ideas: identity and difference. But these ideas are not new. They have been with us for centuries. And they are summed up in the deep and age-old question his music constantly raises in the hearts of his listeners:
Who are we and where do we belong?
Dvořák himself was always clear: this question was central to what he was trying to achieve. When he began his glorious but deeply tragic Seventh Symphony in December 1884, he made no bones about it. The restless and surging tune at the very beginning of the symphony came, he said, from his immediate feelings when he witnessed a great crowd of his fellow Czechs who had just arrived at the Prague railroad station on a train from another city and were pouring onto the streets on their way to a political rally at the National Theatre in support of democracy, freedom and independence, and also for the right to use their native language which had been so brutally repressed.
Dvořák was a direct man and he put it simply:
I am now busy with this symphony… and wherever I go I can think of nothing else. God grant this Czech music will move the world!
A few years later, after the world premiere in New York of Dvořák’s famous Ninth Symphony, From the New World, the German-born conductor Anton Seidl announced:
This music is filled with pathos… the pathos of homesickness.
It’s a perceptive remark. And not just about the New World Symphony, but about pretty much everything Dvořák ever wrote. But rarely is that feeling as strong as it is here in this Seventh Symphony.
But what does it mean to be homesick in this way? The sense that so many human beings in the world have that pain deep in their hearts which makes them think that they somehow do not belong goes far beyond politics and even beyond justice. It’s there with us from the beginning, and in the beautiful slow movement of this Seventh Symphony, Dvořák hints at this even deeper meaning. At the end of this gentle, haunting Poco Adagio, in the manuscript score he wrote an enigmatic phrase:
From the sad years…
It seems what he was referring to were two deeply personal events that had not long before taken place: the death of his adored mother; and the death of his much-loved eldest child. So, in this music, we should hear something beyond even the longing for freedom, nationhood, justice and equity… We should hear the echo of those most universal of human experiences: grief and loss. That is the true "pathos of homesickness" that Dvořák understood so well. And which he depicted so wonderfully in this music because he so wanted this symphony to "move the world." He wanted us to feel what he felt.
– San Diego Symphony Creative Consultant GERARD MCBURNEY