Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra interprets Brahms at Schuster

By Pat Suarez

If any journey begins with the first step, a composer’s first symphony can seem like a perilous expedition, fraught with pitfalls. Chamber music, concerti, sonatas, and other works rarely have the spotlight that symphonies draw. When a composer finally publishes his or her first symphony, heads generally turn.

On Jan. 19 and 20, Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman will lead his Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in the first symphonies of three watershed composers: Franz Josef Haydn, Leonard Bernstein, and Johannes Brahms.

Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of eight, while Dimitri Shostakovich completed his first symphony at eighteen, this one a stunning achievement for a composer so relatively young. Haydn, a legend who penned a staggering 104 symphonies, didn’t write his first symphony until the age of 27.

The popular image of Haydn is that of a composer to royalty who enjoyed a warm, lush lifestyle. In fact he did, but not as early as most people think.

Haydn’s parents recognized their son’s considerable musical abilities and sent him, at the age of six, to live with a relative who could properly mentor the prodigy. While the distance to the relative’s house was less than eight miles, Haydn never returned home.

It was a tough life, with little food, and while there was plenty of instruction in performance, there was none in music theory and composition. As Haydn moved through his teens and became an adult, he learned compositional techniques by studying other compositions, and not with formal schooling, which only magnifies the extent of his achievements as a composer.

Haydn got work where he could into his twenties, finally putting quill to staves in 1759 for his first symphony. It was brief, under 15 minutes, and in three movements had a fullness and opulence that belied its small number of players. Those characteristics would be one of the hallmarks of Haydn’s symphonies through the remaining 103. It also used a continuo, a soon-to-be relic from the Baroque Era that Haydn would discontinue.

The first movement takes off as if it were shot out of a musket. It is brisk and precise, with horn calls at strategic spots. The second movement sounds like a stately dance, with the melody ascending and descending. The image of lords and ladies swirling on a large wooden floor hangs over the music. The final movement steps up the tempo, precision still in play, and sets the table for Haydn’s symphonies to come.

Leonard Bernstein may well have been the single most influential musician of the twentieth century. He was active in classical music, jazz, Broadway, movies, radio, and television, and rock music, most notably in his “Mass,” with which Gittleman and the DPO rewarded this community in 2011. Nobody knows how many people Bernstein brought to classical music with his young people’s concerts, live and on TV. The man on the street might not have known Bach from Beethoven, but he recognized Bernstein’s name and probably heard Lenny on the radio or saw him on TV. Like Gustav Mahler, whose music he championed and whose symphonies received their first complete recordings under a single conductor, Bernstein was a conductor who composed. But Bernstein’s classical music compositions did not receive the same reception as Mahler’s symphonies, and that remained a source of minor annoyance for him.

Bernstein wrote three symphonies over a 21-year period, the first of which came during World War II at the age of 24. While he revised his latter two symphonies years after their composition, he never touched up his first.

The symphony, titled “Jeremiah”, is in three movements (Prophecy, Profanation, and Lamentation) and recalls the story of the biblical prophet Jeremiah who told the story of Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BC. The first two movements are orchestral, followed by a final movement sung by a mezzo-soprano. Fritz Reiner, Bernstein’s conducting teacher at the time, tried to persuade Bernstein to add a fourth, more optimistic movement, but Bernstein demurred, writing to fellow composer Aaron Copland, “He (Reiner) is most anxious for the fourth movement; insists it’s all too sad and defeatist. Same criticism my father had; which raises Pop in my estimation [to] no end. I really haven’t the time or energy for a fourth movement. I seem to have had my little say as far as that piece is concerned.”

The first movement reminds the listener of Jean Sibelius, but with enhanced muscle and more grimness. The serene moments have an air of sadness and loss. The vigorous second movement has elements of Copland and, well down the road, Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The plush final movement is every bit a lamentation, with a glory that Mahler himself would have appreciated.

Johannes Brahms looked over his shoulder at the same long shadow that other 19th century composers saw: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The general feeling, back then, was, “Who could top that? Why even try?” To a conductor, Brahms wrote, “I shall never compose a symphony! You have no conception of how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us.”

Brahms finally began tinkering with a first symphony at age 22, but fussed over it for another 21 years. Finally, with his 68th completed work, at age 43, Brahms had a first symphony, which some wags referred to as “Symphony Number 10”.

Brahms One is, of course, a cornerstone of not only the symphonic genre, but of classical music itself. Arkiv Music lists 244 recordings in print of it, with hundreds that have come and gone. At the Schuster Center, it will not disappoint.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Brahms: First and Foremost on Jan. 19-20 at 8 p.m. at the Schuster Center. For more information please visit DaytonPerformingArts.orgor call 937.228.3630.

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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