Concert Prep

Concert Prep: The Albany Symphony Orchestra Plays Brahms

Saturday, November 23rd at 7:30

Albany Symphony Orchestra, led from the podium and the piano by Jeffrey Kahane.

Thomas Ades – Three Studies from Couperin

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto No.22

Johannes Brahms – Symphony No.1

Jeffrey Kahane leads the Albany Symphony in a unique program, full of innovation. In this post, you’ll find things to watch out for at Saturday’s concerts, as well as various other thoughts that have occurred throughout the rehearsal process.

This is the only bit of the Ades that I could find on YouTube. If it doesn’t sound terribly interesting, that’s because you’re not getting the full effect here. The string sections are divided into two separate orchestras (so there are two first violin sections, two second violin sections, etc.), and placed on opposing sides of the conductor. While the winds are still in their traditional line formations, the string sections form more of a horseshoe than the usual half-circle. A lot of the interesting stuff that happens in the music happens as a result of this set-up – the two orchestras bounce ideas off of each other, finish each others thoughts, and generally create antiphonal beauty. This sets up a bit of a theme for the evening.

First off, you’ll notice that in the above video, the pianist also assumes conducting responsibilities. This is typical for the classical era piano concerto. Concertos in this time were generally written as money-making vehicles for the soloist – Mozart would write a piano concerto so that he could play it himself, and sell tickets to concert halls, and make a lot of money. Why waste some that money on a conductor when Mozart could just conduct the orchestra himself? What you don’t see in this video, that you will see on Saturday night, is a different configuration in the strings – the cellos and the second violins switch spots. This is to create that same antiphonal effect mentioned in the Ades – not only can you hear conversations and debates between the violin sections, you can actually see them! Finally, Beethoven is widely credited with formal innovations in the cadenza (long extended solo for the piano), making it less of a showpiece, and more of a musical statement incorporated into the movement as a whole. If you listen to the end of this cadenza (which begins at about 10:30 of this video) though, you’ll hear Mozart quietly foreshadowing that development himself.

Johannes Brahms took at least fourteen years and two separate attempts (that we know of) to complete his First Symphony. We have Beethoven to thank for that – since the premiere of his 9th Symphony, the critics had been slow to fully embrace any subsequent symphony, and for the first time in musical history, were looking to an heir to the symphonic throne. Brahms, who had been touted as that heir by none other than influential music critic and composer Robert Schumann, was almost painfully aware of this. When questioned about how long it was taking him to write his symphony, he once reportedly snapped back “you don’t know what it means to the likes of us when we hear [Beethoven’s] footsteps behind us.” The First Symphony was well worth the wait, as it was a smash hit, and was immediately dubbed “Beethoven’s 10th.” The obvious impetus for this is string chorale at about the 41 minute mark in this video, but there’s so much more to it than that. Stay tuned later next week for a full YouTube feature on this symphony, as there’s simply too much to squeeze into this particular post. For now, I’ll satisfy myself by simply pointing you towards the transition to the coda (51:15 in the video), which is my favorite transition in all of music.

A few scattered musings on rehearsals…

  • Star pianist Jeffrey Kahane appears to be a truly nice guy, who treats his orchestra with respect and dignity. One quirk of his – conductors will often start the orchestra up by saying “can we start…” Jeffrey (as he insisted we call him after flutist Albert Brouwer tried to call him “maestro”) instead says “may we start…” every single time. Perhaps he’s a stickler for grammar.
  • Also of note about Jeffrey – maybe it’s just me, but he gives off very strong Gene Wilder vibes. Their faces look very alike to me, and I find Jeffrey’s tone of voice to be similar to Gene Wilder’s more professorial tones in Young Frankenstein. If you take Willy Wonka, give him a studious air and a baton, you’ve got Jeffrey Kahane. What do you think?

Conductor by day…

Actor by night?

  • The Ades was a real pain to learn, because it has all kinds of difficult to read rhythms, but once I put my part together with that of the orchestra, it all made a lot more sense, and the details of the orchestration mentioned above actually make it very fun to play. There’s so much chamber music going on here, that it almost renders the conductor superfluous.
  • I’m sorry musician friends who don’t enjoy playing Mozart, but if you don’t enjoy playing Mozart, you’re doing it wrong. His music is charming, and filled with character and spirit.
  • Dynamics in Mozart are pretty sparse – a few fortes, a few pianos, some mezzos in between, and that’s about it. I had a new thought last night though – what if his dynamics aren’t a reference on volume, but could be used as stage directions instead? As in – bassoons play forte, therefore they upstage the mezzo piano in the horns – but both are heard and enjoyed? I might write more about this idea at a later date.
  • Less than 20% of our rehearsal time is allocated for rehearsing the piano concerto, but this doesn’t mean that the performance will be less polished than the other items on the program. There are many fewer moving parts in Mozart than in the other two – very few holds, tough to coordinate ritardandos, etc – and professional musicians are expected to intuitively know how to play Mozart. I personally feel that the ability to read Mozart on sight is a skill that every professional musician needs to have.

One thought on “Concert Prep: The Albany Symphony Orchestra Plays Brahms

  1. Pingback: Brahms and the Footsteps of Beethoven | Dana Huyge

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