Elevenses in the Land of the Sweets

It’s that time of the year when little bears go for dessert to the theatre 🙂

As the first strands of that unforgettable music opened the winter scene, little bears were immediately transported the 19th century days of E.T.A. Hoffmann who wrote the original story, Alexandre Dumas who adapted it for the ballet and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, who composed the score for the ballet.

The fantastical second act – a confetti of divertissements – is a homage in dance to the 19th century’s most precious foodstuffs. Today, those divertissements may seem random, but look a little closer and you’ll find they’re united by a whimsical, rather scrummy theatrical plan.

This was the age when great wooden chests of tea swung over the bows of ships from China, when the aroma of coffee evoked dreams of Arabia, when candies were bestowed on only the most fortunate of Russian children at Christmas time. In 1892, when The Nutcracker premiered and the curtain lifted on the Kingdom of the Sweets, these were some of the gastronomic wonders that the Imperial Ballet brought to life.

Inspired by Hoffmann’s tale, the Kingdom of the Sweets was formed as a lusty representation of the toys and treats that every affluent St Petersburg family knew and loved. Food was the theme that the divertissements brought to life, beginning with the Spanish “chocolate” dance, which recalled the introduction of chocolate beans to Europe following the Spanish Conquest in South America. The sultry strains of the Arabian dance follow, evoking the warmth of the Middle East, where coffee was cultivated for centuries. Tea – represented by the sprightly Chinese dance – was traditionally the most recognisable victual in the ballet, and several choreographers incorporated tea-drinking gestures or even gigantic teapots into the variation.

WA Ballet – Spanish “chocolate” dance
WA Ballet – Arabian “coffee” dance
WA Ballet – Chinese “tea” dance

Interrupting the banquet was originally a buffons or jesters dance (set to the stirring Russian trepak) and the Dance of the Mirlitons, with its delightful scoring for flutes. What is a mirliton, you ask? Confusingly, a mirliton is both a small sweet French cake and a type of musical instrument that produces “a coarse, reedy sound”. It was the popular toy instrument that the ballet’s creators originally had in mind, though at an early stage, according to author Robert Greskovic, Marius Petipa considered identifying the dance number with “cream pastries”. Yum!

WA Ballet – Jesters dance
WA Ballet – Dance of the Mirlitons

Seen less often nowadays is the first sweets divertissement, featuring Mother Ginger (Mere Gigogne) and her clutch of playful Polichinelles. A character with roots in the commedia dell’arte, Mother Ginger usually appears in a comically oversize skirt from under which young children emerge to dance the part of the Polichinelle candies. The divertissement took inspiration from a well-known candy tin that sold in Russia in the 1890s, formed in the shape of a woman wearing a large skirt. Naturally, the tin opened at the bottom to reveal the bonbons inside.

WA Ballet – Nutcracker flowers

Finally, following Tchaikovsky’s famous Waltz of the Flowers, the Sugar Plum Fairy makes her eagerly awaited appearance. This fairy is no glorified prune. The rounded sweets were a confectioner’s pièce de résistance,consisting of layers of sugar syrup skilfully hardened around a caraway or cardamom seed, or an almond. Confectionary historians have described the process as one of the most difficult and tedious to master – not for nothing does ‘plum’ mean all manner of good things.

WA Ballet – Sugar Plum Fairy

One child who succumbed to the delights of this delectable cavalcade was a young George Balanchine, who danced in The Nutcracker as a student at the Imperial Ballet School. Like so many of his contemporaries, Balanchine grew to appreciate the miracle of sugar. In the heart of St Petersburg stood Eliseyevsky’s emporium, which dazzled the little Balanchivadze with its great high windows, its palace-like halls and opulent chandeliers. It boasted “sweets and fruits from all over the world, like in A Thousand and One Nights,” Balanchine remembered. “I used to walk past and look in the windows often. I couldn’t buy anything there, it was too expensive.”

(The shop still exists and is now called Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall and under its current management it has been restored to its former glory to the finest of details.)

Two World Wars and a revolution later, he also bore memories of the horrors of starvation. Along with fellow Russian choreographer David Lichine, Balanchine would go on to create his own fabulous, mouth-watering vision of The Nutcracker. His 1955 production for the New York City Ballet replaced the mirlitons with marzipan shepherdesses and turned the buffons into candy cane. In 1958, Lichine, choreographing for London’s Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) conjured roses atop a Christmas cake for the Waltz of the Flowers, and an interlude for children dressed as little cooks and waitresses.

Little bears like their Nutcracker sweet. Very sweet! With lots of chocolate, chocolate and coffee cake, tea cake, meringue cookies, cupcakes, lollipops….

Porgy and Bess at the Coliseum

While Puffles and Jay went to see Hamilton, Honey and Isabelle went to see Porgy and Bess at the Coliseum.

Porgy and Bess has been called the first great American opera, made all the more significant by being set in a black American community and performed by black artists at a time when black culture was exoticized by the country’s white majority. Since its premiere in 1935, Porgy and Bess has became one of the most celebrated American works of the 20th century, while simultaneously igniting controversy every time it was performed due to its themes, characterizations, and appropriative nature — an opera about black Americans created by three white men – George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward.

Porgy and Bess was the product of a collaboration between George Gershwin and Southern Renaissance author Dubose Heyward, whose libretto was based on both his 1925 novel Porgy and the successful Broadway stage adaptation co-written with his wife Dorothy two years later. In addition to the Heywards, George’s brother and main collaborator, Ira, also made contributions to the lyrics. Authorship of the work is credited to both the Gershwins and the Heywards.

Musically, Porgy and Bess is a kaleidoscope of styles, referencing European operatic traditions, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and black-American vernacular idioms of jazz, spirituals, and blues; Gershwin’s idiomatic voice is characterised by the synthesis of these different musical languages. The music also shows him at the height of his compositional abilities, having spent three years in intensive study with composer and teacher Joseph Schillinger. As Gershwin’s voice was silenced by his untimely death in 1937 at the age of 38, Porgy and Bess represents his most advanced and ambitious compositional achievement.

Despite an initially lukewarm critical reception, Porgy and Bess has since emerged as a cornerstone of the American operatic repertoire, and produced such Gershwin standards as Summertime, I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, My Man’s Gone Now, and It Ain’t Necessarily So. The presence of distinct songs in the work led early critics to debate whether Porgy and Bess was really an opera or a musical. It didn’t help the confusion when Porgy and Bess opened in 1935 it wasn’t in an opera house, but on Broadway.

Latonia Moore as Serena singing ‘My man’s gone now’ in the ENO production of Porgy and Bess

The opera tells the story of the African-American inhabitants of an impoverished tenement near the docks of Charleston, South Carolina called “Catfish Row”. The story itself has been a source of controversy concerning the depiction of southern black life by white authors.

Catfish Row

Although Gershwin made an extended trip to Charleston to attend church services and absorb black musical idioms, he elected to compose his own original “spirituals” rather than incorporate existing African-American melodies, and this drew criticism in light of the work’s subtitle, “An American Folk Opera”. The fact that the composer claimed “folk” authenticity in his original music remains problematic.

From the outset this has been an opera that courted controversy. Even before the opening night, questions were being asked as to whether a white American of Russian Jewish descent was the right person to speak for African-Americans. Since its premiere, Porgy and Bess has come under fire for its treatment of black themes and black music, with some critics seeing it as a caricature of black artistry: “What we are to consider…is not a Black opera by Gershwin, but Gershwin’s idea of what a Black opera should be.” The opera’s characters themselves have drawn criticism, as they engage in racial stereotypes that echo blackface minstrelsy.

Others have a more pragmatic viewpoint on the opera’s depictions: “Porgy and Bess reflects the realities of life that exist amongst communities where poverty of circumstance dictates morality to a considerable degree, as well as the mode of survival, a fact no different for the black community than for any other.”

The English National Opera-led co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and the Dutch National Opera does not confront any of these issues.

James Robinson’s production is pitched midway between an opera and a Broadway musical, which suits Porgy and Bess well enough. Catfish Row, the fictional setting inspired by a deprived quarter in Charleston, South Carolina, is depicted as a skeletal community of houses, not specifically of any here or now.

Eric Greene as Porgy in the ENO production of Porgy and Bess
Eric Greene as Porgy with Nicole Cabell as Bess in the ENO production of Porgy and Bess

One reason the opera does not get performed more often is the need to assemble an all-black company. The Gershwin family maintained a contractual requirement that in staged productions, all black characters in the cast and chorus must be performed by black singers; in non-staged performances, the chorus need not adhere to this restriction. This has made Porgy and Bess an important vehicle for celebrating black operatic talent. The English National Opera has brought together a chorus of 40 singers from diverse countries and this ad hoc group is the glory of the show. Choruses, spirituals, ensembles, all were heart-warmingly uplifting.

Nmon Ford as Crown and Nicole Cabell as Bess in the ENO production of Porgy and Bess
Kittiwah Island: It ain’t necessarily so

It is Gershwin’s music that wins out in this less than perfect opera. Not unlike Wagner’s operas, it could be a bit shorter. There’s plenty of wonderful musical material to fill its three hours (the original version was four hours long), but there isn’t enough plot (again, just like Wagner): basically, it’s “While Crown is on the run for murder, his woman Bess takes up with the cripple Porgy; when Crown returns to claim Bess, Porgy murders him; while Porgy is in jail, Bess leaves.” There is a bit more detail and a few interesting subplots, but too much of the opera is spent adding local colour and not enough driving the action forward. However, the musical richness is so great that it carries you through.

So… Hamilton

In October, little bears went to see Hamilton in London, to see what the fuss was all about.

Where to start? What’s with the ticket prices? You can google “why are Hamilton tickets so expensive” and there is no end of websites talking about the ticket resell sites ripping people off, despite stern (and mostly useless) warnings from various quarters. Hamilton producers have apparently been working to combat the unauthorised profiteering of third party resellers and ticket touts. If there is any profiteering to be made, it is to be made by the producers! Official ticket prices keep going up and up because of the hype surrounding the show. This phenomenon is not limited to Hamilton, but the musical has taken this price hike to a whole new level. In January this year, the premium seats for performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in London, for the period from the end of July to mid-December, went up by 25%, from £200 to £250. That then allowed the next ticket bracket to become £200 and so on. Why? Because they can. I would love to know what the official price for the premium tickets during the second half of December, the Christmas period, is. It’s sold out, so you can’t see the prices on the Ticketmaster UK website. During the lucrative Christmas period in 2017, premium tickets for the New York production reached an eye-watering $1,150. Official price. Again, because they can. Because people still pay the astronomical prices to see the show.

There are 240 tickets priced at £37.50 or less for every performance of Hamilton in London. Out of a theatre seating capacity of 1,550. The musical also has a lottery system, with winners able to buy one or two tickets for £10 each. Hamilton‘s lottery initiative began on Broadway, where top-price seats for the show are far more expensive than in London. Premium seats for the London production of Hamilton are now among the most expensive tickets in West End history.

When it first opened, ticket prices were nowhere near this expensive. A premium ticket was $150. It is the hype surrounding the show that has pushed the ticket prices to near-astronomical levels. Now people have to make a decision between purchasing tickets at astronomical prices or give up the chance to see the show everyone is talking about. And evidently, most people are choosing to pay. We paid £250 for a premium ticket (there were only premium tickets left when we got the tickets). We would never buy a reseller ticket, unless it was for the same original price.

But is it worth it?

Since it first opened in New York in 2015, Hamilton has become a great theatrical success story. First conceived by the writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as a hip-hop mixtape based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, a man known to most simply as the face on the $10 bill, it grew into one of the most ambitious and record-breaking productions ever staged on Broadway, subsequently winning a record-breaking 11 Tony awards and the 2016 Pulitzer prize for drama. It also received the first Kennedy Center Honors ever given to a work of art and not a person. In March this year the London production of Hamilton got 13 Olivier Awards nominations, making it the most nominated show in the history of the awards. It won 7 of the awards, tying with Matilda the Musical for the most wins.

It is widely regarded as the musical of the Obama era. Miranda created Hamilton after becoming enthralled with Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father, and proceeded to write songs for an album called The Hamilton Mixtape. It’s a sign of his audacity that he performed the first of these early works at the White House in 2009, despite being invited to perform hits from his previous musical, In The Heights. But it paid off: the song paved the way for the musical’s opener, Alexander Hamilton. Then in 2016 Miranda visited the White House to perform songs from the musical and a video of him freestyling in the Rose Garden with President Barack Obama went viral. First Lady Michelle Obama reportedly called the show “the best piece of art in any form that I have even seen in my life.” Seriously?

In the face of such critical and Obama acclaim, it is not politically correct to criticise anything about the show. The common retort to people who criticise the show is, ‘If you know so much, how come Miranda is the famous one and no one cares what you think?’ Miranda is not just famous now, he is cocky as a rooster and actively encourages recognition from people as he walks by. He is still under 40, the crown prince of Broadway and clearly living his wildest dreams. As a child, he was so obsessed with musicals and hip-hop that he listened to his cassettes until they broke.

The critics talk about the writing being sloppy with the rhymes not being true, and the musical score being so-so, with harmonies seldom rising above the level of ad-land jingles. Well, it is hip-hop! First I have to say that I know nothing about hip-hop as a genre. I have no interest in it and I do not listen to it. But it doesn’t strike me as a genre renowned for its rhyming or musical eloquence. Yes, good writing takes second place to the overall concept in Hamilton. But Hamilton is hardly the only show guilty of this. The issue I think is the hype surrounding Hamilton given these short-comings, and it is over-hyped.

The other issue with the musical is the presentation of Alexander Hamilton. While waiting for the show to begin, I read about the real Hamilton in the program notes. I took an instant dislike to the man. He was a despicable human being. Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) was a leading politician in the creation of the United States. He was George Washington’s top military aide in the fight for independence from Britain and he later helped shape the US constitution. He was the first-ever Secretary to the Treasury and he established the banking and credit system required by the emerging federation of states. By all accounts he was a genius in certain matters, but a despicable human being.

Academics in the know about the real Hamilton, point out that Hamilton perpetuates the trend of “founders chic” which venerates figures such as George Washington while forgetting their slave-owning and other sins, as the race-blind casting masks this issue. Hamilton has been hailed as a landmark for its nontraditional casting of minorities as white Founding Fathers, but if you put all the slaves owned by Washington, Jefferson and Madison on the Hamilton stage, they wouldn’t fit.

Hamilton offers a celebratory American nationalism and mythmaking that a lot of Americans long for. It offers this assurance that if you work hard enough you’ll be successful, while playing down the systemic obstacles. In view of this, and the nationalist ethos running through the show, it is a mystery that Trump hasn’t taken to it. The fact that the Obamas have praised it so, must be causing Trump to take the opposite view. I imagine Miranda’s response to be, “I really don’t care, do U?”

Six weeks on, the only line I still remember from the musical is Aaron Burr’s line to Hamilton: “Talk less… smile more”, having found myself wishing several times during the show that Hamilton talk less.

Jamael Westman, center, plays Alexander Hamilton in the London version of Hamilton

What has remained is the memory of the speed of the vocal delivery, the bullet-fast insistence of the assonance and the technical ability of the main singers in spitting out all those words. The London cast, a multiethnic ensemble as it is in all Hamilton productions, enunciated more precisely than their American counterparts. It didn’t help much. It’s better if you know the words, and I never will. Hamilton is packed with rapid-fire lyrics, shooting out at you in a firework range of styles: The better you know the album, the more you’ll enjoy it. Just like at any rock/pop concert.

Hamilton has been hailed as a landmark for bringing hip-hop seamlessly into a Broadway musical. The best reason for catching this over-hyped American musical is the energy of its hip-hop rap writing.

The audience does encounter a watertight show. The awards for best costume design, best lighting design, best choreography, best orchestration and best direction of a musical are well deserved. This is a shipshape presentation: text and music and dramaturgy are seamlessly crafted together and presented in an equally seamless production, from the wooden sets to the synchronized and peripatetic dancers.

Obioma Ugoala, center, as George Washington in the London version of Hamilton
From left, Rachelle Ann Go, Rachel John and Christine Allado, as the Schuyler sisters
Giles Terera (centre) plays Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s political rival

It is a thrilling, contemporary, immersive stage presentation that’s a union of story, text, music, image and movement, all hip-hop rap style, that gets under the skin of the audience. While I didn’t forget my dislike of Alexander Hamilton the man, the show was a wondrous spectacle that got under my skin and I enjoyed immensely.

Michael Jibson is divinely petulant as King George III in the London version of Hamilton

There were a few tweaks for the London production, apart from actors with better enunciation. King George’s outfit got a much bling-ier garter because he was looking a bit dingy, especially so close to Buckingham Palace. Miranda rewrote a joke about the Vice-Presidency for a British audience that might not know that John Adams once held that office. He also replaced references to Weehawken and the Potomac, since even general geography lacked local purchase. (A line about duelling across the Hudson because “Everything is legal in New Jersey” didn’t get the laugh it earned in Manhattan.) But a “Macbeth” allusion played better in the UK than it did Stateside: when a beleaguered Hamilton, “son of a whore and a Scotsman,” sings to Angelica, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day / I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play,” the audience chuckled in appreciation.

The greatest cheer of the night came after the line: “Immigrants, they get the job done.” At a time when a lack of diversity in the arts is an ongoing issue in the UK, the pointedly diverse casting of Hamilton – with black, Asian and mixed-race actors filling almost all the roles – ensured that it felt as groundbreaking on the West End stage as it did when it made its Broadway debut in 2015.

The fervour that attends this show is off the scale. There was a standing ovation at the end. Spectacular? Yes. The best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen? No.

Triumvirate of B’s at Sydney Opera House

Berlin Staatskapelle at Sydney Opera House

The Berlin Staatskapelle is an opera orchestra, the resident orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, that also plays concerts.

Over the ‘wall’ from the Berlin Philharmonie, the 500 year old Staatskapelle has weathered tyrants and kings, and worst, GDR bureaucrats. But its cultured sound remains — the history lives on. Much of the later, Cinderella part of the story belongs to Daniel Barenboim, one of the greatest musicians of the past 50 years. When shunned by the Berlin Philharmoniker for directorship after Claudio Abaddo, he focused on his other Berlin orchestra and has thrust them into international prominence.

Daniel Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle at Sydney Opera House

The Berlin State Opera originated with the establishment by Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg of his “Kurfurstliche Hofkapelle” (Electoral Court Ensemble), formally organised in 1570. That makes Staatskapelle one of the oldest orchestras in the world. By the early 17th century the orchestra numbered 37 players, becoming one of the largest in Europe, but during the Thirty Years War it shrank to just seven players. It slowly recovered, now as an ensemble mostly of strings. In 1696, Elector Friedrich III established the first regular opera in Berlin, using the Hofkapelle as its orchestra.

In 1701, Brandenburg became the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Elector became King Friedrich I. Its musical establishment was enlarged and named “Königliche Kapelle” (Royal Ensemble), but with the accession of King Friedrich Wilhelm I in 1713 the group dwindled to a small brass band used for hunting and parades. During this period, the orchestra served as Kur Brandenburg court chapel, exclusively for musical engagements at court.

The next king, Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), known as a military genius, was also a music lover, good flute player, and adequate composer who wrote over 120 flute concertos. He brought in excellent musicians to serve as his Kapellmeister, including Johann Joachim Quantz and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His lovely Royal Opera House on Unter den Linden, built in 1742, was strictly for the court and military officers. After the Royal Opera House was founded by Frederick the Great, the court chapel became an intrinsic part of the Opera House unter den Linden. By the 1850’s, individual members were already extending their Kapelle activities and contributing significantly to the Berlin concert scene. The Opera House has been destroyed by fire and war more than once, but rebuilt each time, and it still serves as the home of the opera and the orchestra.

Frederick II died in 1786, and in 1789 the Unter den Linden opera opened to the public for the first time. The first public symphony concert featuring the Kapelle was a 1796 benefit concert for Constanze Mozart of her late husband’s music. From the beginning of the 19th century the orchestra began giving public concerts which, from 1821, were played at the Gendarmenmarkt Theater.

The greatest conductors in their time left their indelible marks on the orchestra´s culture of instrumentalisation and interpretation. Great figures in music have shaped its instrumental and interpretational culture. Gaspare Spontini, the first to hold the title of Prussian General Music Director, was succeeded by illustrious names, such as: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

There were only sporadic concerts until 1842 when Kapellmeister, Giacomo Meyerbeer, organised regular subscription concert series. The orchestra’s series remained limited and highly conservative by comparison with those of the Berlin Philharmonic Society (founded 1826 and organised as a professional orchestra in 1882) until conductor Felix Weingartner, appointed to head the Königliche Kapelle in 1892, made it a leading part of the city’s musical life. Richard Strauss was its music director from 1908 to 1920. The works of Richard Wagner, who conducted the “königlich preussische Hofkapelle” (royal Prussian court orchestra) himself in 1844 at the Berlin première of The flying Dutchman and in 1876 during the preparations for the Berlin première of Tristan und Isolde, have been a key part of the repertoire of the Staatsoper and the Staatskapelle ever since.

The post-War Revolution toppling the monarchy (known as the German Empire since 1871) resulted in the “Royal Kapelle” being renamed the Kapelle der Staatsoper (State Opera Orchestra). As part of the lively musical scene in Berlin in the 1920’s it now became associated with modern music. Its great conductors during the period included Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Zemlinsky, and Bruno Walter. Many of them left after the 1933 accession of the Nazis to power.

In 1934, the opera orchestra was named the Staatskapelle (State Orchestra), and from 1938 to 1945 was led by the young Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. Another political reorganization in 1944 renamed the orchestra the Preussiche Staatskapelle (Prussian State Orchestra), which ceased giving concerts on April 19, 1945 when Allied troops began to enter the city. But it soon reopened (June 16, 1945) as the “Staatskapelle Berlin”. Two long-serving music directors, Franz Konwitschny (1955-1962) and Othmar Suitner (1964 to 1990), saw the Staatskapelle Berlin through its years as the leading orchestra in East Berlin, firmly under German Democratic Republic government rule.

In 1989, the members of the orchestra presented to the government a petition demanding the reorganization of the Staatskapelle as an independent, democratically run organisation. This became part of the widespread public pressure that within months caused the collapse of the German communist state and the reunification of Germany.

Daniel Barenboim is responsible for the Berlin Staatskapelle in his capacity as Staatskapellmeister (General Music Director) since 1992, between 1992 and 2002 he also held the post of the State Opera’s artistic director. Barenboim, unlike most present-day conductors, believes in long-term musical relationships. While it was not unusual for icons such as Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam, Georg Szell in Cleveland, and Herbert von Karajan in Berlin to create a strong bond and recognisable musical identity with their orchestras over decades of training collaboration, this is seldom the case today. Eugene Ormandy helped his orchestra develop the legendary ‘Philadelphia sound’ over forty years. How many orchestras would be able to boast of similar achievement today? The Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim might be one of the few and the fruits of this relationship were clearly demonstrated in the three concerts at Sydney Opera House.

When Barenboim took over this former East German ensemble, he described it as ‘as little bit like encountering a wonderful collection of antique furniture; the workmanship was superb but there was a thick layer of dust over everything’. Such has been his painstaking work these past years that what we now have are sounds the like of which have probably not been heard in Berlin since the Furtwängler years. Their playing is marked by a golden tone, rich strings, deep powerful timpani, characterful winds and solid brass.

The first two concerts presented Brahms as it should be. Bold, grand, shamelessly romantic.

Staatskapelle with Daniel Barenboim at Sydney Opera House

The fact that Barenboim divides his violin decks antiphonally adds to the purpose of this music (a practice that is unfortunately carried out by few conductors nowadays) and creates some nice effects especially in the last two symphonies. The tempi are slow overall, slower than most performances, but so gorgeous is the playing that it is a pleasure to indulge in such fine music-making. Plus, Barenboim’s definitely not your standard conductor when it comes to these pieces: he gently shapes, nearly caresses, each phrase as if he were sculpting a fine statue of antiquity.

Daniel Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle at Sydney Opera House

Performing the Brahms symphonies as an anthology within twenty-six hours offers all kinds of experiences for an audience. It can listen to the cycle as an opulent wash of Romantic orchestral music; take this rare chance to observe the differences between the four works, resulting from chronology and the increasing maturity of the composer; or attend to the minutiae of interpretations in the various movements. There was a unity to musical concept, playing style, and the quality of both, from the first powerful unisono orchestral tutti of the cycle on a single, resonant C to its last, full E minor chord. It was not the differences between tempi and moods, dynamics and emotions, that appealed the most, but the unbroken attention to the flow of musical energy and its changes throughout the two evenings.

One feature was the way in which Barenboim and his supremely disciplined orchestra allowed the music to breathe. A certain freedom of the tempo, which musicians call rubato, became a self-evident part of the performance, as for example in the deliciously slight hesitation of the opening bar of the Symphony No.4.

The collective tone of the woodwind players was mesmerising. Individual solos, such as the oboe theme in the first half of the Andante sostenuto movement of the Symphony No.1 stood out not only for its outstanding musicality but also for an exquisite and highly individual tone colour. Of the numerous horn solos throughout the cycle, the stentorian Alphorn solo impressed particularly with its resonance and impeccable control in the same symphony’s final movement.

Barenboim also inspired his musicians to produce unique sounds, when two or more instruments or groups played in unison. Seldom do cellos and horns blend so well, creating not two different tones but a joint new one, as they did in the final movement’s triplet theme in the Symphony No.3.

The string section – the backbone of most Romantic orchestral compositions – played with perfect unison. Their excellent balance was helped by a long row formed by the eight double basses in the back behind the winds and brass. Thus they directly faced the audience, and their well-controlled sound came through without the hindrance of being seated on the side. The clarity of sound was nothing short of amazing within the string sections; the middle voices remained light, never cluttering the velvety texture of the melodies. This was particularly obvious in the Allegro con brio movement of the Symphony No.2.

Their always warm and unified sound notwithstanding, a rare achievement of the Staatskapelle Berlin is that individual players are constantly audible – not only the wind instruments but also the strings. While orchestras around the world often aim to achieve a homogeneous sound within sections, there was a pleasing flexibility in a collective sound that was composed of recognisably individual elements.

Barenboim appeared to have counted on that flexibility. While he gave his musicians latitude, he maintained supreme control over the flow of the music. With his left arm often stretched out, he indicated long musical lines or delicately adjusted the balance between the various sections. He often focused on a melody while also accentuating an accompanying voice, only to emphasise another one a few notes later, drawing the listener’s attention to different voices. In this densely written, highly contrapuntal music, where several voices are playing most of the time, this became an intellectual exercise for the discerning audience, for many secondary melodies (always there, but rarely noticeable) gained much welcome importance. The feeling was akin to looking at an old, dusty painting after a thorough cleaning.

Barenboims’s holistic reading of these compositions, based on meticulous observation of all the instructions in the score, revealed them in a new light. It was a less dramatic approach than even Barenboim’s own first recording of the set from 1993. The myriad alterations distinguishing it from the traditional perception of these symphonies were mostly minute, but they altered the sound of the symphonies and rewarded the capacity audience of the Concert Hall with an unusually rich performance of all four Brahms symphonies.

You say you enjoyed the Brahms beary much? That’s beary good news 🙂

And now you can listen to more Brahms with Staatskapelle at home.

Brahms left his native Hamburg in the early summer of 1853, aged just 20, returning later that year, a doted-upon composer, known to Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz and, of course, Clara and Robert Schumann, who declared him a genius. He had achieved fame and presented in his first few works a solid foundation from which that celebrity would grow. Very few people who crossed his path were unaffected by his obvious and abundant talent.

When he died, in April 1897, aged 63, he was the German-speaking world’s foremost composer; indeed he was probably the most famous composer in the entire world. His music was played across the USA as his disciples took up posts in the musical capitals of the New World. He had amassed a considerable fortune almost entirely from the royalties to his music with occasional supplements from performing. He was a composer who did not rely on financial patronage but who truly lived off his talent and was beholden to no one. Today, Brahms’s music — particularly his orchestral music — has a grip on the repertoire like few others, his god Beethoven apart. No other composer offers a symphonic legacy that is so well balanced, so concentrated and at such an equally high level: four works, like the four sides of a square, that comprise a unit of great strength and integrity. Barely a week (hardly even a day) goes by without a performance of one of his symphonies somewhere in the world.

To talk of Johannes Brahms is to enter a world where fantasy, melancholy and the contradiction of bluff appearances and unfathomable depths are crucial prerequisites. Few symphonic composers have done so much with so few works, but Brahms four symphonies have lasted through the centuries thanks to their verve, their freedom and their complexity.

But it didn’t start off quite like that…

If any one composer in history was hyped to breaking point, it has to be Brahms. For a variety of reasons, he was seen as the natural successor to Beethoven, whose legacy cast a long shadow over the 19th century. Basically, everyone was expecting Brahms to pull out the big guns and follow Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

A total of fourteen years were to pass between 1862 , when the then 29-year-old Brahms noted down his earliest ideas for his First Symphony, and the first performance of the work in Karlsruhe in 1876. Expectations were high. The conductor for the symphony’s premiere, Hans von Bülow, even referred to it as ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’, a term which has stuck. It’s true that there are quotes and references to Beethoven work within the symphony, but it’s more of a homage than a case of plagiarism. As Brahms himself commented, “any ass can see that”.

According to a famous remark that he made to his friend, the conductor Hermann Levi, before he had started working on his First Symphony, Brahms regarded his situation as a composer desperate: “I shall never write a symphony. You have no idea who people like us feel when all we can hear is a giant marching along behind us.”

Brahms was clearly aware that he belonged to a generation of epigones and could look back only with anxious wonderment on the age of classical heroes. Although he worshipped Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, as a symphonist he was reacting first and foremost to his father’s generation of Romantic composers, above all to his mentor Robert Schumann and to Menderlssohn. By approaching the symphony from the direction of the serenade and variation, Brahms was able to develop a concept of the medium whose ingenious unity of comprehensibility and complexity is unmatched in the output of any other 19th century composer.

After the nightmare of expectation and hype that surrounded Brahms’ first symphony, you might expect the second to contain some of the composer’s most melancholic work. In fact, it’s surprisingly light and airy, some say with a similar character to Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the ‘Pastoral’. It’s a breeze to listen to, with the first movement especially full of sweeping melodies to whistle along with.

In a show of brilliant self-awareness, Brahms wrote to his publisher in 1877 upon delivery of the second symphony, describing the work with his tongue firmly in his cheek as, “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it.”

By 1883, Brahms was on a roll. He’d had major successes with his violin concerto, his piano concertos and his Academic Overture, but the third symphony was something else. It’s a brave monster of a work, with rapidly changing character and some more of those huge, sweeping melodies.

Nine years after the premiere of his first symphony, Brahms conducted the premiere of his fourth symphony in Meiningen, bringing to an end his engagement with the symphony as a genre. With his final symphony, Brahms again nods to Beethoven on several occasions. As the likes of Liszt and Wagner (who by this time had passed away) set about decrying the old guard of older composers, Brahms ignored most of the developments around him and shamelessly, confidently looked backwards for inspiration. That’s why the fourth symphony has such a strongly classical symphonic feel. There are adventures and experiments within it, but there’s also a huge amount of Bach and more Beethoven.

Bravo! Brahms, Barenboim and Berlin Staatskapelle at Sydney Opera House

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