featuring Kolja Blacher
(subtitled ‘The Arts of Play & Lead’)
Beethoven, Brahms, Britten and Blacher. But not in that order.
That ‘Play and Lead’ title refers exactly to what made this concert so special, the almost unbelievable feat that Blacher pulled off tonight, leading and playing the Brahms violin concerto, along with everything else on the program. Blacher’s bio in the program says:
In the past years “Play-Lead” concerts have become the new focus in Blacher’s artistic activities for which he is highly acclaimed.
And it’s impossible not to see why.
For those of you who might not know, it wasn’t all that uncommon at a certain period in history for the soloist (or concertmaster if there was no soloist) to lead the ensemble, perhaps most often, at least in the classical era, from the piano, as you may have seen before, but I’d never heard of anyone approaching Brahms’ violin concerto this way. I told a violinist friend a few weeks ago that this was coming up, not completely sure I’d remembered the program correctly, and she said (in so many words) “no freaking way.”
The program began with an interesting choice considering what else was on schedule for the evening. We first heard Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, quite a timely choice, actually, considering our English Series that’s going on (and what I’ll be posting tomorrow). I half expected, just because I’ve never seen anything like this before, for him to conduct the other works (the ones without a soloist) from the podium (or at least where a podium would be), but no. Our concertmaster comes out and takes his seat next to where he usually sits. Blacher came out and filled the role of concertmaster.
There was something spine-tingling about there being a large, empty space where we’re used to seeing a podium and conductor and score and all the rest, but no, just 35-ish string players giving us crystalline, beautiful British Britten. The very first utterance of that piece wasn’t quite together, but the work unfolded with really wonderful beauty. I’ve heard of the piece, but hadn’t ever listened to it until this evening, and as I express in my article for tomorrow, the more I listen to Britten’s work, the more impressed I am with what seems like a pure, inherent musicality, a skill, a gift, even. Granted, the variations piece is a very early work, but it has charms in spades, and the NSO played like a giant string quartet, moving and breathing together. Is it just me, or was there a different kind of focus and unity having to rely on each other to continue?
Next on the program is the Brahms, obviously the centerpiece of the evening. The layout for the piece seems smaller than I would have thought, and a very venerable concertgoer who I almost always end up sitting very near if not next to was telling me about how he finds “everything from Brahms just so heavy!” Well, it doesn’t look as heavy as I’d expect.
I’d been a little incredulous a while back about the leading and soloing so I looked Blacher up on The Google and sure enough, this is (obviously) not the first time he’s done this, and it’s a work that the orchestra is assuredly already familiar with, so everyone has that going for them. It just seemed… almost impossible, though, that we could take away this fundamental pillar of the orchestra, the famous “only one who doesn’t make a sound” and have everything still work, and not just work, or be just as good as, but be truly astounding.
I can’t say I’m as familiar with the Brahms as I am with, say, Sibelius, or even Schoenberg, but it’s a standard in the repertoire for a reason (as is almost everything Brahms wrote; hardly too heavy!), but it was a little mind-bending to see how well this went off. Not only was the NSO on point, but Blacher was in complete control.
All the promotional images used give (me at least) the impression of a very stern person, no friendly looking face, no “stare off into the middle distance and smile”, but a tone of seriousness. His unique position as soloist, though, rather felt like he was such a team player, so in touch with but also on the same level as the players. I can’t really describe it, but here we are hearing a violin concerto, generally regarded to be one of the greatest ever written, giving all our attention to Blacher, but here he is giving all his attention to (not only the solo part but) the orchestra. I guess camaraderie is the word I’m looking for. It didn’t seem to take much to keep an orchestra together and give a compelling interpretation of a piece and play a convincing solo part, but he did it. The first movement was German and musical and inspiring, the second was delightful (we have a truly exceptional oboe!) and the third was just brimming with energy and buoyancy. It was an outstanding performance, aside from the Herculean-seeming feat of having played both roles. Does it actually make for a different playing/listening experience? I smiled and sighed and shook my head in disbelief at many points throughout the work. No encore. No surprise. Better without one. How could you have topped that?
Well, he came close.
Last on the evening’s program is finally one of the last two Beethoven symphonies I need to hear live to ‘collect them all,’ and those two remaining symphonies are of course the two most neglected of Beethoven’s symphonic output, the fourth and the eighth. Both of them got kind of a bad deal being sandwiched between what are unquestionably some of the greatest symphonies ever written. The fourth seems still to live in the shadow of the third and fifth, and it would be the crown jewel of just about anyone else’s output. It’s a brilliantly wonderful symphony, and I haven’t listened to it in quite some time, so what a performance we had tonight as a refresher, and it was exactly that.
The fourth, in my opinion, harkens back to a bit of what Beethoven was doing in his first two symphonies, and it strikes me as much lighter and sunnier than 3 or 5. Blabbering on about my feelings for Beethoven symphonies (especially the early ones) aside, there’s a certain degree of pushing you can do to wring out an extra dose of musicality and intensity from these works if you don’t get too heavy-handed with the Romanticism.
The first movement was literally breathtaking. That quiet opening is so much more tense when you know what it explodes into, and explode it did. The first movement was absolutely exhilarating, blisteringly-hot intense but always light and energetic.
‘Edge-of-your-seat’ is often used more to describe action movies than classical music, unsurprisingly, but for as many times as I’ve heard this work (granted, not live), every phrase and turn was a thrill. This is obviously in large part due to Beethoven’s genius, but that first movement… I found myself catching my breath once it was over, and the second movement gave us a chance to do that. It maybe could have given us a little more shimmer, but it was delicately played nonetheless.
The genius of the work is that all but the second movement really do present that kind of blazing, rip-roaring energy, and the more you give, the more it shines, and yet somehow it doesn’t get old. The final two movements were blissful. The scherzo is wild and fun, the trio sweetly, almost comically transparent in contrast, and the finale was the balls-to-the-wall (and still tasteful!) finish it should have been, apparently faster than in rehearsals, I’m told, and everyone kept up. The wheels stayed on, and mad props to the bassoonist for that little exposed bit in the finale. So clean!
I also heard that Blacher was great to work with, and you don’t have to ask the musicians about rehearsals to see that. Not only were three pieces wonderfully played this evening, they each presented their own charms and challenges, foremost among them obviously being the Brahms concerto, but all of it required a deep, almost inherent knowledge of the music, intense focus, forethought, all of those things, and yeah, we are left wondering…. Is that the reason that this was one of the most fascinating musical experiences I’ve witnessed? Could it be? It surprised me as one of the greatest concert hall experiences I’ve been privileged to experience. So unique, so captivating, so impressive.