Friday, April 13, 2018

Juilliard Lab Orchestra Performs Beethoven and Brahms

Earlier this week I attended a performance of the Juilliard Lab Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall, part of the school's Wednesdays at One series.  While these concerts normally last only an hour, this particular one, due to the length of the works performed, continued for some 80 minutes.

The program opened with Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806).  This is a work that when first heard appears strangely out of place.  If Beethoven's middle period was characterized by his striving in the manner of the Romantic hero to overcome the handicap of his deafness, the turbulence of the No. 3, the Eroica, is much more in accordance with the image of the tortured composer than is the relaxed playfulness of the No. 4.  At least part of the answer may have to do with the work's origin.  Beethoven wrote it as well-paid commission from Count Franz von Oppersdorff with whom the composer was staying after having violently quarreled with his patron Prince Lichnowsky.  The count maintained only a small personal orchestra and this necessarily limited the scope of what Beethoven could hope to achieve.  (The Op. 60 is scored for the smallest orchestra of any Beethoven symphony.)  It may be then that the composer, forced by necessity to write for a classical size ensemble, returned to the forms of his early period but in a not entirely serious manner.  The playfulness Beethoven evinces, most particularly in the final movement, is perhaps an indication that he can no longer approach the models he had learned from Haydn with the same degree of gravity he expressed in his first two symphonies.

The second and final work was Brahms's Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884).  This is not an easy work to appreciate on first listening.  Even when the composer premiered the work in a piano four-hand version for an audience of critics and prominent musicians it was met with a puzzlement so intense that even his staunchest ally Eduard Hanslick famously expostulated  "For the whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people!"  How much more frustrated then is the general listener.  At least part of the problem, it must be admitted, lies with the modern audience.  As Brahms scholar Walter Frisch has commented:
" [the No. 4] is not a work, like the Second, whose sensuous beauty beckons listeners inside. In his last symphony, Brahms seems to be writing precisely for the kind of cultivated, musically literate listener whose disappearance at the end of the nineteenth century he sorely regretted."
Not that there isn't much for the musician to admire in the No. 4.  It was after all on the basis of the "developing variations" in the first movement that Schoenberg came to see Brahms as a progressive rather than a conservative composer.  Nevertheless, for the non-musician the symphony remains a work whose greatest appeal is to the intellect rather than the emotions.  At this performance its meticulously calculated structure stood in stark contrast to the Beethoven symphony whose music seemed to stream forth effortlessly as it caught the listener in its flow.

There were four diffeent conductors at this concert - Elinor Rufeizen, Jesse Brault, Jane H. Kim and Benjamin Hochman - each of whom conducted a different movement in each of the two symphonies.  All four did an excellent job on the podium and the orchestra itself displayed an impressive level of musicianship throughout the performance.

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