It should be most interesting to hear what Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams has to say about composer Johannes Brahms when the orchestra presents “Teddy Talks Brahms” in concerts Friday and Saturday, April 26-27, in Whitney Hall.
The program is this season’s edition of a concert idea Abrams pioneered last year, when Teddy talked Beethoven. Audiences on hand for the two performances of that show simply ate it up, and the orchestra was flooded with requests for more “Teddy Talks” shows.
Abrams’ format is to pick one work by a particular composer and spend the first half of the concert talking about the composer and the composition, calling upon his orchestra to play passages that illustrate broad themes and narrow nuances that highlight the composer’s work.
Abrams explains how the bits and pieces stitch together to make the music. Then after intermission, the orchestra performs the work — this time it’s Brahms’ “Symphony No. 4” — start to finish.
Abrams has an especially intoxicating way of communicating with his audiences. But he’s also knowledgeable, and that’s what could make this show particularly fascinating. Classical music fans know Beethoven. But they more know of Brahms.
Who was Johannes Brahms? Why was he so beloved? How was he able to maintain popularity writing instrumental sonatas and symphonies when audiences of his day were living and dying for grand opera?
It must be something in his music, and we expect to find out just what that is … when “Teddy Talks Brahms.”
Intricately flowing together
Johannes Brahms grew up pitifully poor, born in a dockside tenement in Hamburg, Germany, in 1833. But he worked his way up in music, and eventually made it to Vienna, where he became revered in the musical capital of the world.
But fame was more something others held for him — than he held for himself.
The heralded composer lived modestly in a small three-room apartment. Someone lovingly described his furniture as “atrocious.”
Brahms always traveled third class on trains, yet wasn’t cheap. He just didn’t think much about money. In his later years he earned enough from publishing royalties to leave a $100,000 estate. That included some odd cash found in boxes in his closet. Not hidden, just in boxes in a closet.
What he liked to do was take long walks around Vienna. In the summer he would go up in the Austrian Alps to compose.
Brahms never married but carried on a long love affair with Clara Schumann, the widow of composer Robert Schumann, a great pianist herself. No one thought of it as a torrid love affair. They had their own lives. But they were devoted to each other.
Brahms didn’t go in for theatricality. He stuck to the classical ways, and his artistry came in intricate passages that flowed perfectly.
You can bet Abrams and the orchestra will demonstrate that intricacy. How it all flows together. The other day we heard the second movement of the fourth symphony on WUOL-FM, and we’re probably way off base on this, but the chords sounded like chimes, set in a march. Beautiful and unique.
Some of Brahms’ best work harked back, with variations on themes by Handel and Haydn, and the Viennese musical community loved him for it. In 1879, the University of Breslau awarded Brahms a doctorate in philosophy, and he composed some music for the occasion. The “Academic Festival Overture” includes the familiar song “Gaudeamus Igitur.” Sounds just like college.
A personal Brahms favorite is the “Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major,” composed when Brahms was only 20 years old — and later revised by the composer. Here’s a link to a dusty disk LP recording by the Beaux Arts Trio — piano, cello, violin.
Each knew they were saying farewell
In Brahms’ final year of life, in 1897, the conductor Hans Richter organized a tribute concert for Brahms, featuring his final symphony, “No. 4.” Brahms’ biographer, Florence May, reported that the orchestra rose in honor when they spotted Brahms in his box.
Then Richter brought down his baton.
A storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the artist’s box showed himself to the audience. The demonstration was renewed after the second and third movements, and an extraordinary scene followed the conclusion of the work. The applauding, shouting house, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, so familiar, and yet in its present aspect so strange, seemed unable to let him go. Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there, shrunken in form, with lined countenance, strained expression, white hair hanging lank. Throughout the audience there was a feeling of a stifled sob, for each knew that they were saying farewell. Another outburst of applause, and yet another. One more acknowledgement from the master. Then Brahms and his Vienna were parted forever.
That’s the same “Brahms Symphony No. 4” that the Louisville Orchestra will perform this weekend, when “Teddy Talks Brahms.” Performances in Whitney Hall are at 11 a.m. on Friday, April 26, and 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 27. Tickets start at $20.