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A Salute to Brahms

April 15, 2008

May 7 will be Brahms' 175th birthday. You may have noticed that many musicians have been jumping the gun a bit to celebrate the event. The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra got out on the track Friday by delivering a fine performance of Brahms' Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16.
The program in Herbst Theatre opened with a rare performance of Beethoven's Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, and the premiere of Belinda Reynolds' Bridges, a piece apparently designed to complement the Brahms Serenade. (There were no encores.) This was the second of four performances of the program around the Bay Area — all of them free.

Brahms is a strange case. He is one of the best known and least known of composers, since his reputation is largely propelled by his orchestral works — which are scant, 13 in all if you count the four concertos. Yet his major activity was as a composer of piano, songs, and chamber music, most of which is unknown to the general public. (I ask you, when was the last time you heard a live performance of Brahms lieder? Many of them are grouped in important cycles, such as the 15 knightly Magelone-Lieder, Op. 33.)

The five-movement A-Major Serenade is all youthful sunshine and charm, lacking any of the dour Romantic colors that later became a Brahms trademark. Among other things, the Scherzo is likely the best he ever produced, brimming with musical puns. It shows the composer's orchestral slight of hand, since he achieves the colors in a chamber orchestration without violins. Clearly, he understood, from early on, the vibrance of violas in their higher registers.
Gold Star Performance
Under Conductor Benjamin Simon's urging, the orchestra took to the piece with all the zestful panache of a major orchestra. Technical matters were all well-placed: intonation, unity of ensemble, style, balances, accurate dynamics. It's Brahms before he went into the masterpiece business, to use Virgil Thomson's phrase. This Serenade performance deserved a gold star.

Not as much can be said of the first two pieces, though. The Beethoven Septet, his most performed work during his lifetime, is actually a six-movement serenade (or divertimento), scored for a tiny chamber orchestra. His instrumentation calls for one each of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. One measure of its immediate appeal is that Friday's audience applauded after every movement. The piece, minus the Beethoven fist to the sky, is all charm and wit, but is heard all too seldom because of its unusual combination of instruments.

Trouble was, this time out it was performed minus conductor. That's tricky for seven players, and it showed. Here and there, intonation slithered from the path, and ensemble playing was less than perfect. Yet on the whole, count this as successful.

Reynolds' Bridges, commissioned by the S.F. Chamber Orchestra via a San Francisco Arts Commission grant, uses much the same instrumentation as Brahms' Second Serenade. There, the similarities end. It's approximately 10 minutes of largely ostinato minimalist hubbub. Now and then a few South American underpinnings of rhythm could be heard.

But the piece mostly sounded 1970s retro, well past its sell date. It offered terribly old-hat techniques and was both poorly orchestrated and flabbily organized. It just sort of sat there passing the time and waiting for the grass to grow — a prelude to an event that never happened.

I began to associate the piece with old travelogue sound tracks, with a narration like "And now as the sun sets, we bid farewell to the beautiful Amazon. ..." Too, the general effect was unaided by a rather messy, struggling performance. As with Rossini's appraisal of Wagner's Tannhäuser after his first encounter, "It is music one must hear several times, but I shall not go again."

Nevertheless, the concert will remain important, principally as a worthy tribute to Brahms, as well as a hint of what's in store when Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in its three-week Brahms Festival, May 8-24. That event will even include some of Brahms' neglected songs for women's chorus. To which I say, sing on!

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.