Brahms at Lincoln Center
While most of you were watching the debate last night, I was at Avery Fisher Hall listening to Valery Gergiev conduct Brahms as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series. In anxious times I find Brahms extremely consoling, in a non-anodyne sort of way. He is vigorous without being noisily annoying, heartfelt without being saccharine, and his works usually end with a bang in a satisfying rock-music fashion. He is by no means my favorite composer, but I always enjoy him more than I expect to: his reputation (even in my own mind) is not as high as it should be. All four of his symphonies are pretty great, the German Requiem is a knockout, and though I am only a moderate fan of the three quartets, the quintets and sextets more than compensate. These are excellent odds for any composer, and the late nineteenth century would be sadly deficient without Brahms.
Monday night's program, with Gergiev leading the London Symphony Orchestra, featured the Tragic Overture, the Violin Concerto, and the Second Symphony. Of these, the violin concerto was the clear standout, mainly because of the remarkable soloist, James Ehnes. I have heard this young Canadian before, in San Francisco, and at that point I resolved to go to every concert within reach that featured him. He is one of those rare soloists who seem to have no "manner," no showmanship--it is just him and the violin. When he is not playing, he stands ramrod straight with the violin tucked under his arm, as if standing at attention in the Royal Canadian Mounties. (Perhaps I am fantasizing here: I know nothing about the Mounties.) When he is playing--which he does without a musical score--he is focused completely on his instrument, and so are we. It is as if the violin is playing Ehnes and not the other way around.
I cannot imagine what the Brahms violin concerto would be like without a master violinist (I have only ever heard Christian Tetzlaff play it, before Ehnes); my guess is that it could not be done at all if it were not done well, because it is so complicated and so long. In any case, this performance by James Ehnes and the LSO was gripping. Which is more than I can say for the presidential debate, to which I tuned in on my iPhone during the intermission. I was relieved when I was allowed to go back in for the Second Symphony: Brahms, at any rate, does not hedge his bets, and always says what he truly thinks.