BSO Evokes the Turmoil and Tranquility in Brahms

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In conjunction with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s two-week celebration of the music of Johannes Brahms, two young American composers were commissioned to write short, concert-opening works. Eric Nathan’s the space of a door premiered Nov. 10; the following week was the world premiere of Brooklyn-based Timothy “Timo” Andres’s Everything Happens So Much. Originally meant to accompany Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and his Symphony No. 3, an illness on the part of soloist Hélène Grimaud meant a change in program for Friday, Nov. 18. Instead, the opening piece became Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, Andres’s new work as the opening after intermission, and the night completed by Brahms’s Symphony No. 3.

A rousing way to begin the night, the orchestra matched conductor Andris Nelson’s every move with passion and intensity. That being said, perhaps there was too much ardor at times, if a misplaced note by a violinist in the second movement is anything to go by.

With three of its movements in minor mode, Symphony No. 4’s haunting melodies brought emotions of mourning to mind. As each movement escalated upon the previous, there was a sense of relentless, mounting tragedy that built up to the final Brahmsian fate-motif by the pulsing timpani, a stirring finish.

A former Tanglewood Composition Fellow, Andres does not quote Brahms directly in his work, but takes the composer’s technique of combining several musical gestures together to create a dynamic counterpoint. The eleven-minute, single-movement work overflows with chaotic energy.

The composition opens with a playful piccolo theme that soon spreads to oboe and clarinet. As more and more instruments join the mix, melodies begin to cross as if different strands of a story weaving themselves together. With its fractured rhythms and discordant themes, it is obvious the piece is a modern one. Yet, even with its modernism, it manages to evoke the essence of Brahms, as if taking a Brahms theme and fracturing it into many pieces that somehow work their way back together. Nelson’s frenzied conducting seemed to help match the chaotic feeling of the composition.

As the piece continues, the strings take over creating a more peaceful and calming feeling. Jarring notes still appear every now and then, as if to remind of the chaos that lies below the surface. By the work’s end, the strings have taken total control, breaking into soaring phrases until all sound fades away signaling the end.

In contrast, the performance of Symphony No. 3 seemed almost muted and proved to be a definite change of pace. Often considered the most difficult of the four symphonies for a conductor to pull off successfully, it attempts to make discernible thematic connections binding together the first, second, and last movements, a procedure not attempted in Brahms’s other symphonies.

As performed Thursday night, even with Nelson’s dramatic motions across the podium, the piece felt subdued and restrained, as if the orchestra was holding back. As the last composition of the night, it was easy to drift off and zone out; the yearning theme of the third movement being the only exception. As the last notes of the fourth movement faded away, it was as if being woken from a dream, a mist-enshrouded recollection of something you cannot quite evoke, rather than the stimulating awakening often received at the end of the night.

Header photo by Marco Borggreve, courtesy of the BSO.

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