Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Connections: Brahms' Double Concerto in Harrisburg

Saturday night’s concert with the Harrisburg Symphony was more than just a fine performance: there was an unexpected connection that made the experience beyond just hearing the music.

I’ve known cellist Daniel Gaisford for a few years, now, and in addition to several recitals had heard him play the Elgar Concerto with the orchestra in 1997 under their previous music director, Richard Westerfield. Violinist Kurt Nikkanen played the Brahms Concerto in 2003 and before that, Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol with Stuart Malina. As long as Kurt and Daniel have known each other, having met as students at Juilliard, it’s odd they’ve never had the chance to play Brahms’ Double Concerto together,

In an earlier post, I wrote (and wrote) about Brahms, this concerto, his friendship for Joachim and his attempt to rekindle the friendship after a major falling-out. I also hypothesized about the reason this work was a concerto for violin and cello rather than just for the violin, for Joachim himself.

Ever since I first heard the work back in the mid-60s when I bought an Angel LP with David Oistrakh and Pierre Fournier (recorded in 1956), it sounded more like a cello concerto with an additional violin solo part - not exactly tacked on like an afterthought, but not quite of equal stature. If Joachim had been counting notes the way Heifetz did when he and Piatigorsky rehearsed Miklos Rozsa’s Double Concerto, Brahms would probably have been taken to task for not treating them equally to the same number of notes. And since Brahms had just written Haussmann a cello sonata the year before, who’s to say the germ for this new concerto wasn’t a Cello Concerto that failed to get off the ground? Since Haussmann was the cellist in Joachim’s quartet, it might seem like an affront to his old friendship with Joachim, one that went back 34 years, so perhaps the germ mutated into something else entirely, much the way his first attempt at a symphony turned itself into his D Minor Piano Concerto?

All of that aside, it was fun to watch these two friends enjoying a work so closely involved with friendship – and to have Stuart Malina on the podium, a mutual friend who frequently plays piano trios with them whenever they’d all be in town. Stuart started his 9th season with the orchestra and has been an active part of the community ever since, a genuine bonus for Harrisburg in an age when many orchestras have drive-by music directors. Daniel has called Harrisburg home, where he and his wife have settled to raise their two sons, trundling off to New York or other points here and abroad for concerts. In recent years, he has taken on the directorship of the State Street Academy of Music which hopes to develop a pivotal role in the present and future musical life of Harrisburg. In order to benefit some of the community’s gifted string players, he asked his friend Kurt Nikkanen to come in for some master classes and lessons and to perform at the school’s center at State Street’s St. Lawrence Chapel. So it’s much more than just two soloists on the road whose paths converged for a weekend’s concerts.

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Update: As of Thursday, October 10th, Daniel Gaisford resigned as director of the State Street Academy. He informed me that the Sunday afternoon concert series has been canceled for the season.
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One of the problems in performing the Brahms Double, of course, is finding two soloists of like temperament so that it, in fact, DOESN’T sound like two great artists, each trying to play it his way, slapped together to play a great piece. Though I haven’t heard it in years, the Oistrakh & Fournier recording was probably not one to convert me to the piece, a work that’s often described as the “least” of Brahms concertos (considering there are only four). It’s more than just players being on the same level, more like the same wave-length.

There were things happening in this performance that could only happen between musicians who really know each others’ playing, how they’ll respond to a phrase, how they’ll respond to each other. It would certainly only get better – telepathic or otherwise – when Kurt can free himself by memorizing the music, too, though it certainly didn’t seem to inhibit him, here.

Another problem with performing the Brahms Double – and I’ll try not to sound like Michael Palin (no relation) in Monty Python’s “The Spanish Inquisition” – is balancing the orchestra with the two soloists. Brahms’ textures tend to the “thick” side which can easily become stodgy. A few years ago, I talked with a cellist who had recently recorded the Brahms Double in Europe with a conductor he said sounded as if he’d eaten too much bratwurst, conducting Brahms as a composer who had eaten too much bratwurst himself. I remembered hearing that recording: I liked the cellist’s playing but didn’t really like the piece. That wasn’t the problem here: everybody was able to keep it light enough, Brahms had no trouble dancing.

If the energy between the two soloists was clearly the result of their chamber music experience, Stuart Malina and the whole orchestra were able to respond in the same manner – listening to the soloists and to each other, not just playing their parts and counting measures’ rest in between. Not to mention, as Malina joked afterward in the talk-back, “watching the conductor,” something that would seem obvious but is not always the case. By keeping in tight communication with the podium, the whole orchestra could stretch a phrase or push toward a cadence if the soloists felt like doing so – and this is something that, frankly, one player who isn’t paying attention can ruin very easily.

This kind of back-and-forth involvement was evident all evening, from the Liszt tone poem, Les Preludes, that opened the program to the Hanson “Romantic” Symphony on the second half. It’s all the more surprising when you consider at least seven key principal players were missing: because the Lancaster Symphony’s opening concerts were the same weekend (as their schedules often collide), that means one orchestra or another is going to be without its principal winds – the 1st flute, clarinet, and bassoon each play in both orchestras. For other reasons, the principal oboist, the principal hornist and the timpanist were all “subs,” too – musicians hired from the substitute players’ list. Even the crucial role of the Concertmaster was filled by the second-chair player, Peter Sirotin, while Odin Rathnam recuperated from a shoulder injury.

Incidentally, if you heard either performance, there's a poll over at Stuart Malina's blog - and you can read his post about the weekend's concert, too.

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Sometimes you find something out about a performance only afterward that makes the whole experience a little different from what you thought you were listening to. Years ago, in 1985, I remember catching a telecast of Verdi’s Aida, back in the days when it was not unusual to see something like this on TV, with Leontyne Price in the title role. Now, I had heard the opera many times, seen it a few as well, but there was something about this performance that was riveting and I couldn’t take my ears off it, tuning in late during the third act aria “O patria mia.” Only during the wild ovation at the end did I understand why: this was going to be Leontyne Price’s last performance at the Metropolitan Opera, in fact from any operatic stage.

Saturday night’s performance with the Harrisburg Symphony had nothing quite so dramatic about it – no impending farewells, at least – but there was a shiver of after-the-fact recognition during the post-concert “talk-back session” when someone asked Daniel Gaisford about his instrument’s pedigree. Sometimes, musicians sound like people talking about the cars they drive – “my first car was a 1969 Corvair” – and we forget, sometimes, that Stradivarius was a man, not a brand-name. I had known that Gaisford plays a 1706 Goffriller known as the “Ex-Warburg,” made by the Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller. But only when he rattled off a list of past owners, many of whom I missed due to the bad miking in the Forum, did I hear one name that made my ears sit up: Robert Haussmann.

This was the cellist who played the first performance of Brahms’ Double Concerto, the cellist Brahms composed it for. Is it possible that this very instrument was the one Haussmann played the night of its premiere?

If not, the fact that this cello was even played by the cellist for whom Brahms wrote his 2nd Cello Sonata and who often played with him in chamber music concerts, it’s very likely, at the least, Brahms might have heard him play it.

The question, however, is when did Haussmann own the 1706 Goffriller now known as the Ex-Warburg? If he purchased it after 1887, then it might not have been the one he played with Joachim at the first performance of Brahms’ new concerto. If he came to own it only after 1897, that would be after Brahms’ death (and Haussmann continued to play in Joachim’s quartet until 1907, two years before his own death). If he owned more than one instrument, maybe he played the other one? Things are further confused, Daniel told me after the talk-back, because Haussmann owned two Goffrillers, both apparently made in 1706.

The description of Haussmann’s cello – with its dark finish – would very likely make it the cello in this undated photograph (see below) with Haussmann (erroneously labeled as Richard, not Robert) seated next to Brahms, a photo that probably coincided with a private performance at the house of Dr. Richard Fellinger and his wife Maria, who’s standing behind the piano.

Other house-concerts took place there with clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld whose mellifluous sound brought Brahms out of retirement. Haussmann had been the cellist at the premiere of the Clarinet Trio in 1891, two years after Brahms made the famous Edison cylinder recording at Fellinger’s piano in 1889 (is this the voice of Johannes Brahms? it’s definitely him playing the piano). In 1886, Brahms had composed the 2nd Cello Sonata for Haussmann and the Double Concerto pairing Haussmann with his Joachim in 1887. Judging from other photographs, I’m assuming Brahms is older, here, so I’m also guessing he’s probably already in his 60s by then, taken around 1893 or later. So unless both 1706 Goffrillers have the same dark finish, this is probably Daniel Gaisford’s cello, just a few feet from Johannes Brahms.

Whether it’s one or two degrees of separation from the first performance of the work I had just heard played by this instrument – placing the instrument, the performer, the composer and maybe the concerto all in the same place at one point in time – it is a connection with the past that gives me musical goose-bumps, proving that composers like Brahms are not just marble busts but, somehow, human beings who just happened to write all this great music long ago.

Incidentally, speaking of being human, the painting on the easel behind Brahms and Haussmann is a portrait of Clara Schumann. Returning to Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms, Maria Fellinger was a painter, sculptor and photographer who took many candid shots of Brahms – I had actually cropped this photo in the earlier post, cutting off Frau Fellinger standing behind the piano. Brahms had known the family since 1881 and Sunday dinners at their house “became one of his most reliable rituals.” There is also a famous portrait (otherwise uncredited) of the usually tie-less Brahms that Swafford captions “The cravat he is wearing may be one of those Marie Fellinger made for him.” She was also responsible for finding him the house-keeper who would look after him and his apartment during his last decade. Though it turned out not to be in danger, it was Dr. Fellinger who ran back into the burning building when the carpenter shop on the ground floor where Brahms was staying one summer caught fire: he rescued the score of the just completed 4th Symphony while Brahms, staying in line at the bucket brigade, said later “these poor people needed help more than I did..”

Kurt was playing a violin by Guarneri del Gesu, one of the greatest violin-makers, easily second to the best-known name of Stradivarius. It too has a fascinating story – or lack of story, in a way – but I’ll save that for later, perhaps. The amount of money you can spend on instruments like these is mind-boggling - even bows that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars - so it was amusing that Stuart then said “and my baton cost $6.00,” to which Kurt replied, “but what a sound!” Joking about this afterward, when I mentioned that may explain why so many violinists have been taking up conducting, Stuart added “and flutists.” If I’d been quicker, I would’ve responded, “Sarah Palin’s taking up conducting?” (Well, if she’s seen an orchestra from across the street, I guess she’d be experienced enough, right?)

On Sunday, both Kurt and Daniel were going to be playing different instruments, both made by a maker who’s still living – it would be interesting to have been at both of concerts (or have them both recorded) to be able to compare these recent instruments with those that are 300 years old. As for me, I’m glad, if there was only one concert I could attend, that I heard Saturday’s concert if only because of that possible connection between that cello, Brahms and his Double Concerto.

Well, that’s about 2,100 words... so I’m outta here, for now.

I’m sorry I missed the Lancaster Symphony’s opening concerts. Market Square Concerts opens their new season on Saturday with the Daedalus Quartet, so I hope to get something posted between now and then about this young quartet I’d heard a few years ago at a Next Generation Festival. But Tuesday morning brings with it a quick reality check as my front lawn continues to be dug up, this time to replace a water-well pump that is only 46 years old... Onward!