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Brahms in the 21st Century

January 23, 2014

Cal Performances

Otter AxCounting two encores, Anne Sofie von Otter sang 23 songs by Brahms, plus one by her Swedish countryman Tor Aulin, Thursday at Zellerbach Hall. By normal measures, that would have constituted a full and satisfying evening of 19th-century lieder.

But the mezzo soprano and her onstage partner, pianist Emanuel Ax, were up to a lot more. In the first of two “Brahms and Beyond” concerts presented by Cal Performances, two new works, by Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly, built a bridge between past and present. Ax also performed three Brahms Intermezzi and the Romanze in F major, Op. 118. No. 5. Thursday’s concert was part of a larger, multi-city Ax “Brahms Project.” Berkeley gets the next installment February 26, when the pianist joins forces with cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Zellerbach.

If this first “Brahms and Beyond” program didn’t open any major new pathways to an appreciation or understanding of the composer, it offered many and manifold pleasures. The first and primary one was von Otter’s lucid, graceful, and expressive singing, not only in the Brahms and Aulin selections but in a dramatic monologue by Muhly, set to an unlikely but effective pairing of texts by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy and the American novelist and poet Joyce Carol Oates.

Dressed in a floor length red gown and flashing gold jewelry, the strikingly blond von Otter projected a regal and dignified air. Any notion of imperiousness vanished immediately, in the gentle caress of her first song, “Erlaube mir, feins Mädchen” (Allow me, fair maiden). With “Es wohnet ein Fiedler” (There lived a fiddler), a late substitution in the program, von Otter brought a jaunty wit to the magical tale of a hunch-backed fiddler’s healing. In a pair of songs about a rose’s transitory solace in the face of great loss, the singer’s voice took on a richer, darker timbre over restive piano accompaniment. A handful of songs were more than enough for von Otter to canvass a substantial emotional and interpretive terrain.

That continued, after a pair of piano intermezzi, with a transporting set of six songs that brought the first half of the program to a close. Von Otter painted a series of vividly rendered scenes here, from a stormy churchyard to a languid summer evening to an exultant “Hurrah” for life, rich with gleeful sibilants and percussive consonants. Nothing, however, was more absorbing than the tale of abiding love she spun out in “Von ewiger Liebe” (Of eternal love), by turns awestruck and feverishly intense.

While the voice was uppermost in the evening, Ax was the important prime mover, both at the keyboard all night (especially as a sensitive accompanist) and as the instigator of the program. In the two works he commissioned, Ax asked the composers to take the Brahms musical motif of F-A-F (“frei aber froh,” or free and happy) as an inspiration.

That was most apparent in the Mazzoli solo piano work, Bolts of Loving Thunder. In its obsessive, minimalist dwelling on a mid-keyboard chordal pattern, with lots of crossed-hand bolts and sparks flying into the upper registers, the piece proved to be a briefly beguiling, if finally monochromatic, response to Brahmsian intervals and murmurous inner voices. Ax’s own thick-textured reading of the two Intermizzi in the first half (Op. 118. Nos. 1 and 2), seemed to anticipate, albeit soberly, Mazzoli’s repetitive, airy musings. The pianist echoed the piece’s cross-handed technique in his Brahms selections later on. It was a bridge, albeit a slender one.

Muhly, who came to wide attention with his recent opera Two Boys, left the piano silent at the outset of “So Many Things.” After several eerie a capella lines of Cavafy’s verse, about the “queer beauty” and “spoilt youth” of someone spotted in a theater loge, the piano snuck in with chittery, nervous glyphs. The piece took on a kind of skewed enchantment, with von Otter holding some lavish long notes over the piano’s nervous muttering.

The Oates section, about a woman striding into a plate glass window “as if walking into the sky,” had the more evocative, almost painterly, shadings of a Brahms song. The vocal line kept swooning into fateful, descending intervals. The piano shivered sympathetically and then fractured into shard-like bits of melodic fragments. Muhly’s “Things,” which returned to Cavafy at the end, was a strange and nervy thing, at once sketchy and fervent, trailing off into piano trills. It was most Brahmsian in its attention to emotional nuance and specificity.

Von Otter had a lot more distance to travel in the second half, from a mordant depiction of a sleepwalker to a lover’s turbulent Sunday morning and on to a set of rustic Gypsy Songs and a positively giddy encore about a sulky girl getting what she wants (“Och Moder”).

Ax kept deferring to her during the bows, but he remained a force throughout. In his probing and tender accounts of the haunting B-flat Minor Intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 2 and the Romanze, Ax dispensed with the hard-edge, chord-heavy performances of the first two Intermezzi he played. Here was the composer in all his amplitude, lyrical and brooding, wistful and dark, melodic and harmonically layered. Ideas, about intervals and inner voices and cross-handed technique, floated off on Brahms’ long, deep, and winding river.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.