Tag Archives: Brahms

Milwaukee Symphony devotes two weekends to Johannes Brahms

Categorizing German composer Johannes Brahms can be difficult. From his position at the end of the Romantic era (the late 19th century), the composer was both rooted in the old world of classical music as well as ahead of his time.

Over two weekends, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will give audiences the opportunity to decide for themselves Brahms’ place in history. The MSO’s Brahms Festival, taking place at the Marcus Center the weekends of April 29 and May 6, will feature Brahms’ entire symphonic repertory: four impressive, significant pieces.

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Johannes Brahms only published four symphonies in his lifetime, all of which will be presented by the MSO over two weekends.

That may not seem like a large number, but it was for Brahms, a notorious perfectionist who frequently destroyed his own works when they did not measure up to his high standards. Brahms was rumored to have destroyed over 20 string quartets before he finally presented his first public example in 1873. Brahms also destroyed several of his early works, including pieces that he had performed earlier in his career. This extreme perfection and dedication to his craft led to a smaller but exceptional legacy.

The works that did survive Brahms’ composition chopping block, including the four symphonies, are now considered standard repertoire — which provides its own unique set of problems. “The challenge with these pieces comes from their notoriety,” explains MSO principal clarinetist Todd Levy. “There is an expectation with pieces like this since many of the audience members know and love these works. They may already have their own interpretive ideas as they listen to the works.”

On April 30 and May 1, music director and conductor Edo de Waart will begin the festival by conducting Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor and Symphony No. 2 in D Major. The first symphony runs roughly 45 minutes in its entirety, and, like many of Brahms’ works underwent several drafts over many years. The earliest sketches of the work date back to 1854, but the finished work did not premiere until 1876, almost eighteen years later. The work is considered universally to be a masterpiece, and frequently harkens back to the works of other great German composers, including Beethoven.

In contrast, Brahms composed his Second Symphony over the summer of 1877, during a visit to the Austrian province of Carinthia. This composition period was far briefer than for its predecessor. Like the First Symphony, the Second reflects the work of Beethoven, this time most similar to the pastoral and lush harmonies of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

The following weekend, May 6 and 7, will feature Brahms’ other two symphonies, also conducted by de Waart. Symphony No. 3 in F major, composed in 1883, is Brahms’ shortest symphony and is often identified as his most personal, a slight shift away from the more traditional, non-programmatic works he is better known for. It features multiple motifs reminiscent of works by composer Robert Schumann, a close friend of Brahms and husband to the woman Brahms famously pined for: Clara Schumann. Brahms also uses a recurring motif — a rising F, A-flat, F pattern — that is meant to signify Brahms’ half-serious personal motto frei aber froh, or “free but happy.”

Brahms’ final symphony is darker and more complex, a noble work in E minor that premiered in 1885. Its minor key is only the first contrast to its preceding symphony, being more solemn. It concludes, famously, with a passacaglia, a serious-sounding musical form defined by its repeating, stately bass line.

With symphonies needing to cover so many artists in a given season, it’s rare for patrons to have a chance to hear so much work by a single composer in a two-week period, Levy says.

“It’s a great opportunity to hear these symphonies live performed by a great orchestra,” adds Levy. “Though the pieces are standard repertoire, they are not always performed in this short of a time frame.”

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Brahms Festival will span two weekends: April 30 and May 1, and May 6 and 7. Tickets range from $17 to $107. For concert times and additional information, visit mso.org or call 414-291-7605.

‘Bach & Brahms’

Frankly Music comes back with Bach — and Brahms too. The two legendary composers will be thrust into the spotlight by MSO concertmaster Frank Almond at this show, which features work created when they were at their respective peaks as artists. Don’t think that these composers’ age and distance from the present moment makes them any less than rockstars: Frankly Music’s last season opening show sold out and there’s no reason to suspect any different this time around.

At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 914 E. Knapp St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $30 online, $35 at the door and $10 for students. Visit franklymusic.org for more details.

7 p.m. Sept. 14 


Madison company combines humor with classical music

The founders of Madison’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society see their role of bringing classical chamber music to the masses as, ahem, an annual mission of mirth-y. Their sense of playfulness extends to the name that Jeffrey Sykes and Stephanie Jutt chose for their 22nd series of summer concerts: “Deuces Are Wild.”

“Studies have shown that people moved to laugh are also open to more fully experiencing other emotions,” says Sykes, a pianist who serves on the music faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University, East Bay. “When our audiences laugh at something we do or say, we feel their energy and engagement change for the better, and that engagement often remains in place when we’ve moved on to some serious music.”

The founders of Madison’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society see their role of bringing classical chamber music to the masses as, ahem, an annual mission of mirth-y. Their sense of playfulness extends to the name that Jeffrey Sykes and Stephanie Jutt chose for their 22nd series of summer concerts: “Deuces Are Wild.”

“Studies have shown that people moved to laugh are also open to more fully experiencing other emotions,” says Sykes, a pianist who serves on the music faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University, East Bay. “When our audiences laugh at something we do or say, we feel their energy and engagement change for the better, and that engagement often remains in place when we’ve moved on to some serious music.”

BDDS’ six concerts are performed in three locations over three June weekends. This year the musical program embraces a gambling theme, with titles such as “Follow Suit,” “Lost in the Shuffle,” “Stacked Deck” and “Poker Face.”

But there is nothing funny about the music, which includes works ranging from Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart to Kenji Bunch, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and out composer Ned Rorem. 

“We look to balance works that are new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, short and long,” Sykes says. “One of the great things about BDDS concerts is that if you hear something you don’t like, just hang on for a minute. Something different will be coming your way soon.”

In addition to presenting programs peppered with door prizes, standup comedy and even origami lessons, BDDS employs a cadre of top-shelf performers. Like Sykes, Jutt has ties to academia as well as a serious performance history. She’s a professor of flute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and principal flautist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. 

This year’s roster of 13 revolving guest performers includes Jean-Michel Fontenau, cellist with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; Emily Birsan, soprano with the Chicago Lyric Opera; Carmit Zori, violinist and artistic director with the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Chamber Music Society; Axel Strauss, professor of violin with the Schulich School of Music at Montreal’s McGill University; and John DeMain, pianist and maestro of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

“Stephanie and I both play with a lot of different musicians, and when we find people we enjoy working with, we consider inviting them to BDDS,” Sykes says. “We have a list of about 1,000 musicians we’d love to have.”

This year’s performance venues include the Playhouse at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. The setting provides the group with a thrust stage and support for shows requiring more theatrical effects, Sykes says. The Stoughton Opera House, 381 E. Main St. in Stoughton, is also on the bill. That venue offers a beautifully restored period opera house with a traditional proscenium stage.

The Hillside School Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, CHY 23 just south of Spring Green, may provide the most historically significant setting. Wright designed and built the structure in 1902 for his aunts who wanted to run a boarding school. It became the first of what is now the Taliesin campus of historic Wright buildings. 

“The audience is so close that sometimes we can reach out and touch them!” Sykes says of Hillside. “The acoustics are wonderful, but it’s tricky to do anything special with lighting or staging there.”

Still, on a warm summer night sparkling with fireflies, there is something magical about a BBDS performance. Maybe that’s because the concerts are a labor of love.

“Stephanie, Samantha (Crownover) and I do all this hard work because there is nothing we find more fun and satisfying than this summer chamber music festival,” Sykes says. “It is our passion, it is our calling.”

Rachel Barton Pine plays lullabies for people of all ages

A child prodigy, Rachel Barton Pine began playing the violin at the age of 3½. She performed with the Chicago Symphony at age 10.

Pine was well on her way to becoming one of the most gifted musicians of her generation when tragedy struck in 1995. Then 20 years old, she was exiting a Metra train in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka with her violin case slung over her shoulder. The train’s doors closed on the case’s strap, pinning Pines’ left shoulder to the train. She was dragged 366 feet before being pulled under the train, severing one leg and mangling the other.

But Pine persevered, continuing to perform and record to much acclaim. She also started a family with Greg Pine, and the couple welcomed daughter Sylvia in 2011.

Motherhood provided inspiration for Pine’s latest recording, the exquisitely soothing “Violin Lullabies” (Cedille). Performing works by Brahms, Ravel, Schubert, Strauss and Gershwin, among others, Pine, recording with Matthew Hagle on piano, has created one of the most beautiful and tranquil recordings of the year.

“Violin Lullabies” is an ideal Mother’s Day gift for all the mothers, regardless of age or gender, in your life.

“Violin Lullabies”  opens with Brahms’ “Wiegenlied (Cradle Song),” perhaps the most beloved lullaby of all time. Was it always your intention to begin the CD with this selection?

Oh, yes. It was a song that my mom sang to me and that her mom sang to her. (My violin has) a very unique and special connection to the song. (Barton plays a 1742 violin made by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, considered the greatest violinmaker of all time. The instrument, on loan to her from a patron, is the same violin Brahms selected for his protégé Marie Soldat, one of 19th century’s most renowned female violin soloists. She frequently played chamber music with Brahms, and was one of the first champions of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77). To play any music of Brahms on the instrument with the voice that Brahms obviously preferred, especially to play the Brahms lullaby on this Brahms violin, is incredibly special.

What was involved in selecting the remaining 24 lullabies you included on the CD?

I have a great passion for collecting sheet music, especially historic, out-of-print kinds of things. I’d noticed many years ago that various composers had written lullabies. Sibelius, Ravel, Faure, Respighi, Stravinsky. I was intrigued by this, and I noticed that a few violinists had made albums of romances over the years – meaning not just romantic-sounding music, but every single composition on the album was romance. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be a fun thing to do with lullabies?” I thought, “Wait until I have a kid someday, and then I’ll explore that idea of the violin lullabies.” I wanted to collect every lullaby for the violin that I could possibly find, so that I could then pick the best. I ended up with more than 150 of them from libraries around the world. Sylvia would be breast-feeding and I would be on the Internet contacting these libraries. With a good nursing pillow you can actually do both at the same time (laughs).

Have you composed your own lullaby for Sylvia?

I haven’t written her any melodies yet (laughs). There are so many great ones that already exist. But I did actually write her some lyrics with the young, gay, Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz in New York, one of the very exciting young classical composers on the scene today. He wrote me an amazing five-movement, unaccompanied sonata just two years ago, which happened to be when I was pregnant. He was inspired by the creation of new life, both the human being and the piece of music (laughs), to make the last movement a lullaby for Sylvia. It has a gorgeous Arab-inspired melody written for violin. But because it was written for Sylvia and it’s a very singable tune, I actually put some lyrics to it. I sing her Mohammed’s lullaby with her words. It’s really gorgeous, but I would be way too embarrassed to sing it to anybody but my daughter (laughs).

Are lullabies as effective for adults as they are for children?

Absolutely! So many people have insomnia these days. Who knows what the reason is? Too much blue light in our lives during the evening hours affects our melatonin? Or maybe our dietary habits? For whatever reason, a lot of people have insomnia and after this album was released some of my friends said to me that in addition to being a wonderful recording for parents and children, people should try this instead of some Ambien and see if it does the trick.

Are you aware of a following in the LGBT community?

My goal has always been to show that classical music is not for people of a particular race or ethnicity, not for people of a particular social or economic class. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. Most of my classmates in music school grew up in the suburbs. When you look out into a sea of white faces and you talk about classical music being diversified, my first question is, are any of those faces from my old neighborhood? Because we need to diversify in that direction as well. There’s no reason why classical music as music shouldn’t appeal to everybody and everybody should be welcome. I grew up in the United Church of Christ, which is the most liberal of all the mainline Protestant denominations. The same denomination that Barack Obama used to attend. The UCC has a very strong history of being on the forefront of social change. They were the first denomination to ordain a woman pastor, an African-American pastor, etc. Starting from the time I was a little kid, and this is going back a few decades, we had commitment ceremonies in church and became what we call open and affirming, which means that we believe that loving, committed relationships between two people of any gender are blessed by God and by the church. (My husband) Greg and I met at church. We are raising our daughter to have the same values of honoring family diversity and being on the side of marriage equality.