Concert Prep

Andre Watts Plays Brahms

Andre Watts Plays Brahms

Albany Symphony Orchestra

David Alan Miller, Music Director

Andre Watts, Piano


Verdi – La Forza del Destino

Visconti – Black Bend

Strauss – Emperor Waltzes

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2

Verdi – La Forza del Destino

This is very theatrical music – there’s a flair that the Italian opera composers have that is less present in music from almost any of their contemporaries. I could very easily see Verdi and his ilk as being the forerunners of modern movie composers. You can almost see the backdrops to an opera when listening to this overture.

Visconti  – Black Bend (no YouTube recording found)

Performance Note for Strings: All passages are to be played non-divisi except where specifically notated. The desired effect is a raw, “dirty” sound where classical standards of ensemble and intonation are of secondary importance.

That’s the first thing that I saw when I looked at the title page, along with a list of unique score markings, and instructions on how to interpret them. Looking through the music, instead of allegro, and adagio, I saw words such as “lumbering,” “hallucinatory” and (my personal favorite) “frenzied; throbbing with intensity.” We’ll be taking the high point of this work significantly under-tempo tomorrow; Maestro Miller has said that many of the accounts that he’s heard of this work sound like the orchestras hardly know what they’re doing half-way through, and that he hopes to keep us together this way (while it sounds bad to not do what the composer says, it’s actually a very common practice, to make adjustments to tempo to make the music more playable. Shostakovich’s music, for example, is rarely played at the marked tempo, even on recordings made by his peers and friends). One way or another, if you’re looking for classical music, you probably won’t find it here.

Strauss – Emperor Waltzes

Johann Strauss Jr. is a deceptively difficult composer to perform. It’s just a series of waltzes, right? Well, to get the right style is quite difficult. Sometimes orchestras get in the habit of saying to themselves “oh, Strauss. I know how to play that. Engage autopilot mode!” These are the kinds of performances that give Strauss (and the orchestra that plays his music) a bad name. This is some of the most luxurious music in existence, but for it to sound like it, requires the musicians to pull their heads up out of their music stands, and pay attention to each other. Watch for the musicians’ responsiveness to Maestro Miller, and to each other tomorrow! If we’re doing our jobs, you’ll see us all reacting to one another.

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2

In my post on Brahms’ First Symphony in November, I noted the shadow of Beethoven, and the tone of angst that it imparted to Brahms. This is Op.83, composed long after the success of the First Symphony, and the difference between Brahms’ First and Second Piano Concertos is remarkable. The complex part-writing influenced by Bach, the more complex four-movement structure, the light-hearted finale, all point to one thing: a new Johannes Brahms, validated, and comfortable in his own skin.

Brahms’ Second Concerto is revolutionary for the way that it writes the piano part in cooperation with the orchestral part. No melody and accompaniment here, and significantly less conflict between the piano and orchestra than there was in the First Concerto. You’ll hear a french horn planting a long low note to support the piano (called a pedal tone, because on the organ, these tones were played by the feet), or the melody being traced by the flute along with the piano. There are also long stretches where the piano accompanies the orchestra, rather than the other way around.

  • Quotable: “Destiny never changes tempo.” David Alan Miller to the brass during Verdi.
  • Andre Watts is very sensible with how he manipulates the tempos. When playing a concerto, it’s very easy to feel like you’re playing tag with the soloist, and just trying to keep up with what his or her interpretive whims are. Mr. Watts’ rubato seems to be rooted in plain old common sense, which makes it very easy to follow.
  • Black Bend incorporates a way of composition made popular by John Cage – chance. When solo parts are intended to sound randomized, Mr. Visconti chooses not to notate rhythm, instead marking note-heads to indicate pitch, and placing them in the measure roughly where he’d like for the to be performed. It gets the idea across, and it’s much less of a pain to read than endlessly complicated dotted and triplet rhythms.
  • One of the cellists told a funny story about the huge cello solo in the 3rd movement of the Brahms. In a performance with a chamber orchestra in Wisconsin, the principal cellist picked up his chair before the third movement, and plopped it down right next to the piano (at the conclusion of the movement, he moved it back to the section)! The cellist is regularly given the ultra-rare solo bow in a concerto for this solo, but that’s quite bold!

One thought on “Andre Watts Plays Brahms

  1. Pingback: Great Compositions/Performances: Johannes Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83 | euzicasa

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