Review: Brahms’s Double Concerto, Philadelphia Orchestra

Saturday, October 24 2015
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Donald Runnicles, conductor

David Kim, violin
Hai-Ye Ni, cello

Mozart, Symphony No. 29 in A major (1774)
Brahms, Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (“Double”) (1887)
R. Strauss, Don Juan (1888)

The third week of October must be National Brahms Week or something.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra brought Brahms’s 2nd Symphony to Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic is presenting an all-Brahms program, kind of, with the 1st Symphony and the “Double” Concerto for Violin and Cello as well as Detleve Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie, whatever that is.  Some 90 miles away, the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing the Double Concerto as well.  Whereas New York’s program features world-renowned soloists Lisa Batiashvili and Gautier Capuçon, Philadelphia is drawing from its own roster with concertmaster David Kim and principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni.  Naturally, this warrants a road trip to Philly.  (Well, that, and I have some quarterly errands to run in the old stomping grounds anyway.)

The first time that I attended a concert in Verizon Hall back in 2008, I thought the venue was somewhat of an anachronism.  Though beautifully designed in the shape of a violin, its sleek modern construction seemed contradictory to the mostly centuries-old music often heard on its stage.  Over time (thanks to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s amazing student ticket program), however, not only did I come to appreciate its ample amenities and carefully calibrated acoustics, it became the very emblem of the grad school phase of my life: high or low, light or heavy, all notes eventually came to pass as a rich, transformative melody is invariably left behind.  Filling the void.

Enough reminiscing for now, let’s get to the performance.  So, Mozart.  I have probably played (and sung!) more Mozart than I have of any other composer.  This is a true statement, though not particularly meaningful–we are talking about the difference between zero and epsilon.  I bring it up, however, because Mozart occupies a strange position in my aesthetics hierarchy.  With a few important exceptions, I find his music uninteresting to listen to, but when I play his music, I am always in awe of his genius. Playing Mozart is like what mathematicians say about tensor products: once you understand it, the concept seems so natural that it’s as if it’s always been part of your life, even if you were struggling with it in the very recent past.

With that in mind, and having never played the Symphony No. 29, or any symphony for that matter since I have never touched a string or wind instrument, I thought the piece—both the music and the performance thereof—was just OK. Though composed almost exclusively for strings, somehow I didn’t think it effectively showcased the Philadelphia Sound. It’s whimsical and effervescent, a change from the heavier motifs that would characterize the next century and a half of classical music, but it was also just…so ordinary to listen to. It did not help that, given the greatest string section in the world, the conductor didn’t ask for much except the right notes at the right tempo with just the prescribed, almost mechanical amount of levity. Yes, the end result still sounded good, but I would not have made the trek from New York just for this. Early-stage Mozart probably sounds best in a small, chamber-like setting in any case.

Of course, I didn’t make the trek just for the Mozart symphony. The main event was Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello. Post-Classical composers tend to write concertos that feature the soloist as an entity separate from the orchestra, and as such few concertos post-Beethoven feature multiple soloists. Brahms’s Double Concerto is an important and marvelous exception where both the violin and the cello are given ample virtuosic passages without overshadowing each other or the orchestra. Moreover, the soloists are given distinct voices and characters despite often playing the same melody at the same time.

The opening of the concerto was a bit shaky, with the cello entering on the lowest notes of its range before straining to reach its highest and then falling back. Ms. Ni struggled a bit with this entrance and was slightly off in pitch. (I had listened to a performance of this piece on Youtube featuring the Capuçon brothers as soloists and found that Gautier had struggled similarly.) Mr. Kim’s violin entered on the right pitch, but he played his initial notes so softly that they were barely audible. After reinforcement from the orchestra, however, the soloists promptly regrouped and, in the remainder of the first movement, combined to form a super-instrument that not only showcased their combined range, but also their combined textures and temperaments with the sweet, lithe violin and the assertive, full-bodied cello. The second movement has the two soloists gently leading the orchestra in a sentimental tune. The long, lyrical passages here is where Mr. Kim really shines. The final movement is a rondo built on a memorable gypsy theme introduced by Ms. Ni, who struck the right balance between playfulness of the melody and the inherent thoughtfulness of the cello. The soloists and the orchestra then took turns with the theme, showcasing the multifaceted relationships between the soloists as well as between the soloists and the orchestra. The soloists are at times partners, at times competitors, and the orchestra, unlike in most Romantic-era concertos, are not relegated to the background but rather support and imitate the soloists and vice versa. They complete each other’s phrases and accompany each other. Like a family.

Next to Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss is arguably the most prominent embodiment of the Romantic ideal of synergy between literature and music. (He is also, to my ear, the composer that John Williams copies most from. The Don Juan theme sounds so familiar, have I heard a derivative of it in Star Wars?) Apparently Strauss’s two favorite operas are Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Mozart’s Così fan tutte, so I suppose it makes sense that he superimposed undying love and passion’s fickleness to depict a man eternally in love with love in Don Juan. Though ostensibly a tone poem, Don Juan loosely follows the three-movement sonata form, with a remarkably tender and longing middle section that was played beautifully by the orchestra’s principal oboist Richard Woodhams. The ending was a memorable one, where Runnicles injected his only personal touch of the night with an extra-long pause after our anti-hero’s death before finishing with a subdued coda. In the 1890s, such music had been considered avant-garde. Will the atonal compositions of today be canonized by the 2140s by an audience more numerous than just New York music critics? I’d find that difficult to believe, or rather to accept. Of course, in all likelihood I won’t be around to find out. More depressingly, if the empty seats in Verizon Hall tonight were an indication, maybe nobody else will care to either.
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