We are already well into the series of performances of Shakespeare’s early masterpiece, Richard II. The only one of his plays to have been written entirely in verse, it has long been treasured for the poetic beauty of its sad tale of a failed monarch. As rich as this stream in the play is, Shakespeare never neglected the toughness of the genre of history plays he helped to create.
Brahms’ Fourth must stand with a very small handful of other works at the apex of symphonic composition. It represents the essence of “symphonism,” that is, the use of the fully developed romantic orchestra as a unified, full-throated body expressing a completely coherent and integrated musical discourse, in serious purpose comparable to great works of philosophical thought. It is difficult not to think in philosophical terms when encountering this work, especially as performed by the TMC Orchestra under the hands of nonagenarian Herbert Blomstedt, whose control over the flow of such expansive structures is notable among today’s conductors. Words like “austere,” “severe,” “dark,” and “stern” appear regularly in the literature to warn listeners that they are in for a challenging experience with this symphony. One could add “sustained,” “coherent,” “integrated,” “interconnected,” “deeply moving” and, finally, “tragic.” There are few other symphonies that insist on the minor modality to the bitter end: Haydn’s Symphony no. 49 (“La Passione”), Mahler’s Sixth (“Tragic”), and Vaughan-Williams’ Fourth and Sixth may be the best-known examples, and only Haydn displays the same structural necessity and lack of ambivalence about such a conclusion as Brahms.
We listen to all kinds of music in concert halls. They seem to provide a neutral setting within which all different genres can make their own statements. In Ozawa Hall I have heard Japanese Gagaku music, Sephardic music from the Middle Ages, opera from Handel to Bizet and Beeson, violin solos, extra-large orchestra pieces (e.g. Mahler’s Third), electro-acoustic music, string quartets, etc. Although this list does not include jazz and rock, there is no reason why this space would not suit them equally well.
What is best in Aston Magna’s concerts is a complete lack of pretension, whether it is Daniel Stepner’s quiet erudition or the singing of soprano Dominique Labelle, who shows an almost childlike identification with the music she sings, this requiring of course, a superb technique. The players take pleasure in the style which they have mastered so completely. It doesn’t proselytize or force anything on you. We are a family, privileged to hear some of the greatest music there is.