FWSO Great Performances festival to celebrate Brahms-Dvorak friendship
08/17/2014 12:00 AM
08/16/2014 7:29 AM
When the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra brings in a soloist for a typical weekend of concerts, that player usually only has to worry about having one piece of music ready.
But violinist Augustin Hadelich, who is the featured soloist in the symphony’s Great Performances Festival at Bass Hall this weekend, will have to have two concertos in his bag when he arrives for the event, which honors two great Romantic Era composers this year — Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvorak, under the banner of “Brahms and Dvorak: Two Old Friends.”
The violinist will perform the Brahms violin concerto Friday and the Dvorak violin concerto Sunday. On Saturday, Joshua Roman will perform the Dvorak Cello Concerto (mezzo-soprano Zandra McMaster, originally scheduled to be featured in a performance of Dvorak’s rarely heard Biblical Songs, is ill and Roman’s performance replaces hers).
“The Brahms, in particular, is one of the concertos that is performed the most, and it has always been one of my favorites,” said Hadelich, in response to a question about how an artist prepares for such a challenging task. “[The Dvorak] generally doesn’t get played very much. But it is good to have a piece that not many people have in their repertoire. And so I have enjoyed playing it over the past few years.”
The 30-year-old violinist — who was born in Italy to German parents, graduated from the Juilliard School and makes his home in New York — said that his experience with these two great concertos is a real help in getting the piece ready for performance.
“I play those pieces a lot, so my preparation, from a technical point of view, it’s not really starting from nothing. The Brahms, especially, I can get ready for a performance very quickly,” Hadelich says.
“The Dvorak is a little tricky. It has a lot of folklore in it, and the form is very unconventional. You really have to think about it. It is very possible that we will spend more [rehearsal] time on the Dvorak than the Brahms.”
Hadelich stresses that the key to his job is being able to hit the ground running when he arrives at the concert hall.
“The soloist shouldn’t show up without being 100 percent sure that he has everything in his fingers and a very clear idea of how he would like to shape the piece. Then you see how the conductor likes it and go from there,” said Hadelich.
There is one portion of one of the works, however, where Hadelich will be on his own. Like many concertos, the first movement of the Brahms features a cadenza — a passage where the guest artist performs a solo. The original idea was that the cadenza could be improvised to allow the soloist a chance to show off. But, in many cases, the composer provides one. In others, cadenzas established by well-known performers are used.
“Brahms has a place for a cadenza but did not write his own,” says Hadelich, who last performed with the symphony at its 2012 Great Performances Festival, playing Samuel Barber’s violin concerto.
“I played the cadenza by Joseph Joachim [a great violinist of Brahms’ era and the dedicatee and debut artist of the concerto] for many, many years. But now I play the Fritz Kreisler [a legendary 20th-century violin virtuoso] cadenza. It is very daunting to do my own cadenza for a work that great. But I hope to do it someday.”
The two concertos Hadelich will be performing have much in common. They were composed and debuted within a few years of one another and both have the sweep and scope that characterize the Romantic style.
Dvorak even dedicated his lone violin concerto to Joachim, just as Brahms had with his (although the famed virtuoso never played the Dvorak). Yet, both also reflect the well-established personalities of their composers. The Brahms reflects the German composer’s unsurpassed ability to create orchestral works that were very much of their times, but which were also subtly rooted in the past. The Dvorak proudly displays the sort of Bohemian personality for which that Czech composer is famous.
“The language is quite different in the two works. Dvorak has a very national style that is all his own,” says Hadelich.
“And the slow movement [of the Dvorak] is a bit of a challenge because it is the longest movement of the whole piece, but it must be played in such a way that it doesn’t feel like it.”
Hadelich has done his homework on these concertos and is comfortable with them — as he is with symphony music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who will be conducting the festival’s trio of concerts.
“We met about eight years ago, when I won the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis,” Hadelich says.
Together they recorded the Mendelssohn and Bartok violin concertos with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra earlier this summer.
“It was wonderful to have the chance to record together for the first time,” the violinist says. “We are really on the same wavelength musically.”
Background on the festival
The symphony’s Great Performances Festival, an end-of-the-summer weekend of concerts designed to whet our appetites for the coming symphony season, typically focuses on a single composer or era.
But this year, the event pairs two composers who would, at first glance, seem to have little in common.
Brahms (1833-1897) was a pianist from Germany who rose to be one of the giants of that country’s musical pantheon in the late 19th century.
Dvorak (1841-1904), who was eight years Brahms’ junior, was a violist who was eventually seen as the embodiment of Bohemian musical culture, Gypsies and all.
In comparing their personal lives, Dvorak’s story is surprisingly free of the usual drama and odd turns found in so many composers’ biographies. He came from humble origins (he briefly studied to take up the family business of being a butcher), but his rise to fame and fortune as a composer seemed to be unusually smooth and normal.
As the son of a musician, Brahms also grew up in a less-than-affluent household. But his life as a composer was enriched, and complicated, by his relations with the composer Robert Schumann and his wife, the renowned pianist Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896). The young Brahms famously developed a crush on the much older Clara and enjoyed an intense (though apparently platonic) lifelong friendship with her.
But the two composers, well separated by age and geography, knew and influenced one another.
For one thing, they spoke the same language. Dvorak was born in what is now the Czech Republic, but he made the effort to learn German as an adolescent, studying that language with the same teacher who provided him with early music lessons.
Brahms became aware of Dvorak in 1874 when he judged one of his works in a composition competition (which Dvorak won). With the help and urging of an important music critic of that era, Eduard Hanslick, the pair made contact and became lifelong friends.
One of the most tangible links between the two composers can be found in a pair of works to be performed in the Great Performances Festival, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances.
Brahms had developed a love for the music of European Gypsies early in his career, which he later channeled into a set of solo piano works. He wrote 21 dances in this style, publishing them in 1869 and 1880. Brahms later orchestrated some of them, while others were enlarged by other composers, including Dvorak.
Because they had been successful, Dvorak’s publisher felt the Czech composer was a natural to ride the coattails of Brahms’ hits. He was certainly right. The 16 Slavonic Dances, composed for orchestra and published in 1878 and 1886, remain among the composer’s best-known works.
Overall, it would be difficult to overstate Brahms’ impact on Dvorak and his career. The authoritative Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states flatly, “Brahms was the chief agent of Dvorak’s success.”
But the true beauty of their relationship was that, although they obviously admired one another, neither copied the other one. Even the stylistically similar Hungarian Dances and Slavonic Dances have their own distinct personalities.
So these two seemingly disparate composers make ideal companions in the concert hall. They are close enough in time and tone to peacefully coexist on a symphony program. But they are always different enough to remind us that they were unique talents joined by a strong bond of musical respect.
Two works worth knowing
Both Brahms and Dvorak produced enormous bodies of outstanding work, especially for orchestra. They are justly loved for their symphonies (two of which will be heard at the festival), in particular. But both also wrote a number of fine chamber and solo works. Here are two you may not know:
Dvorak, Bagatelles, Op. 47
This suite, composed for a small ensemble that includes the seldom-heard keyboard instrument the harmonium, is a bright little Bohemian joy from start to finish.
This grand, striding work shows Brahms at his most Germanic best. Although composed for a single keyboard, it has the same power and muscle found in his symphonies.
Sources: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie, ed.; “Classical Composers,” by Peter Gammond; “Brahms,” by Malcolm MacDonald; and Wikipedia.
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