My orchestra performed Brahms's Symphony no. 3 Friday night. It will go down as one of the most satisfying concerts of my career.
Also on the program was Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Walton's Portsmouth Point Overture, a rambunctious work that, with all of its rhythmic complexity, is constantly darting this way and that. (In a rehearsal of this work with the Aspen Festival Orchestra back in 1982, Jorge Mester became so frustrated with the strings' inability to negotiate all of the metrical land mines that he exasperatingly placed his baton on his stand, asked concertmaster Ruben Gonzalez to take over the rehearsal, and left!)
The Walton is very tricky, and there were times early on during the rehearsal process when I wondered how much time it would take to get a five minute piece ready for performance. But once the players understood it to be an English hootenanny, we were fine. The Brahms, however, was another matter.
Kurt Masur calls Symphony no. 3 "the most personal" of the four symphonies by Brahms. It's also the hardest. And the first movement alone may be the single most difficult symphonic stretch for any orchestra.
You might say Le Sacre du Printemps is harder. Perhaps it was in 1913, or even 1923, but nowadays the best youth orchestras can handle it with dispatch. Elliott Carter's Symphony of Three Orchestras? Sure, but if you make a mistake, only you will know. Anything by Mozart, or Mendelssohn? Again, yes, but in works by these composers there are instances of great momentum, with plenty of opportunities to let go. This never happens in the first movement of Brahms's Third.
With few exceptions, you won't find youth orchestras playing the symphonies of Brahms. Youngsters do well with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. I've done Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with orchestras at every level, from the Pacific University's town 'n gown orchestra (where some of the ladies would blow the dust off of their violins once a week), on up to the world-class Pittsburgh Symphony. I am as proud of what the former did as I am of the latter. (My brother attended both performances, and preferred that of the town 'n gown bunch.) Not all of Beethoven's symphonies are this way -- the Fourth is very difficult, and that may be part of the reason why it is so infrequently performed. But the Fifth, to quote Edmund Morris, has a universality to it. Everybody gets it.
Not so with Brahms. Many people know the music to be great, but that doesn't mean they want to spend time with it. Rachmaninoff's piano concertos will always be more popular. Brahms wrote beautiful song cycles, but those by Schubert and Schumann are the ones we often hear on vocal recitals. The piano music is astounding, but not as popular as that of Chopin, Liszt or Beethoven. That being said, you will hear the chamber music of Brahms on many programs. Same with the four symphonies.
But the Third Symphony is in a world of its own. In what other symphony from the standard repertory does a composer conclude all four movements in quiet repose? When I thought about how to order the pieces on this program, I had the brief temptation to put the Brahms first, then the Walton and Britten on the second half, so as to bring the program to a rousing close. But then I remembered what the great conductor, Bernhard Klee, told me many years ago when he commented on a program that began with the 3rd Brahms and ended with Schubert's epic Symphony in C major. He said, "This is a travesty, for nothing can come after the Brahms."
One of my first lessons at Yale with Otto-Werner Mueller was on the first movement of Brahms's First Symphony. Mr. Mueller kept stopping me because he didn't feel I was showing the right sound. (Imagine that -- a conductor actually projecting a certain kind of sound.) At the time, I thought he'd gone mad. But then he instructed me to fly to Los Angeles to watch Carlo Maria Guilini conduct the work, and I began to get the idea.
With Brahms, sound is everything. (One conductor told me that, after he lost nearly a hundred pounds, he couldn't get his orchestra to play Brahms the way he wanted. Much to his musical -- if not physical -- satisfaction, he promptly put the weight back on.) In the first movement of the Third Symphony, sound is paramount, but rhythm is king. It's in 6/4, meaning there are 3 subdivisions to every beat (instead of the customary 2), which means that within every beat there is that extra little semi-beat where something can go wrong. Additionally, Brahms is constantly thwarting the natural rise and fall of the rhythm, so that a phrase such as "When are we going to Pillsbury Hill," which has natural stress points on "WHEN are we GO-ing to PILLS-bury HILL," instead with Brahms comes out sounding, "when are WE going TO pillsbu-RY hill." After awhile, you feel like you are continually putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.
And there is that issue of momentum (or lack thereof); in this music, you can never rest! In the middle movements, Brahms does release the tension somewhat, only to return to it once again in the volatile finale.
The late, great Carlos Kleiber was once asked to conduct a Brahms cycle with the Chicago Symphony, and he asked for 6-8 rehearsals. (Four is the standard.) The management wrote back, "Oh Maestro, you won't need that much rehearsal time, as the orchestra has recently performed all the Brahms symphonies." Kleiber's response? "In that case, make it 15." (The invitation was rescinded.)
The story may be partly apocryphal, but you get the idea. After Friday's performance, I'm certain the members of the Hartt Symphony Orchestra get the idea. Their rendering of Brahms's Symphony no. 3, and of the first movement in particular, had a majesty to it. They were rightly thrilled, and the audience (which properly waited several moments at the close of the symphony before clapping) responded with equal parts exhilaration and exhaustion. Brahms does that to you.