The hedgehog

Two-day Brahms Fest with Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra

By Pat Suarez

Johannes Brahms is such a household name in the world of classical music that he needs no introduction. Or does he?

This was a composer who wrote 160 works, and yet most concert-goers know him only as the guy who penned four symphonies, three concerti, a handful of overtures and a Lutheran-based requiem mass. While this claim might be an exaggeration, it’s too close for comfort for a composer who commanded the end of one of classical music’s most beloved periods, the Romantic.

On May 6 and 7, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of music director Neal Gittleman, will celebrate this legend in presentations of six of works, including two chamber works that prove that Brahms was more than just a dozen or so compositions.

The popular image of Brahms is that of a portly old professor with a bushy beard, a serious academic who ate his porridge and hard bread alone while reading Immanuel Kant by candlelight. The reality was not that severe, but Brahms was a loner, uncomfortable with women his age, a situation emanating from his stature (5 feet 3 inches on a good day) and a high-pitched voice. Ironically, in his 20s and early 30s, Brahms was a good-looking man; today, he would be a fixture on the covers of the weekly glossy entertainment magazines. He didn’t grow the paunch until his late 30s and the beard until his mid-40s. In his later years, friends referred to Brahms as the “hedgehog,” in part because of his appearance and also because he frequented a tavern called the Red Hedgehog (which explains the hedgehog image on one of George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra Brahms album covers).

At his core, Brahms saw himself as the guardian of the legacy of his predecessors, which included Bach and Beethoven. He began composing at age 11, but was such a perfectionist that he destroyed all of his early works. Famously, he tinkered with his first symphony for 15 years and didn’t premiere it until he was 43 years old. It is rumored that he wrote 20 string quartets before publishing his first.

Brahms continued the traditions of the Classical and Baroque eras, but
infused them with his brand of non-overt Romanticism. This mixture influenced the tone of his compositions: His works range from the lyrically beautiful (his Symphony No. 2, “German Requiem” and the violin sonata on Saturday’s program) to viscerally exciting (the “Academic Festival Overture” and that First Symphony) to academically serious (his Symphony No. 4, about which one wag said that, with this symphony, Brahms set his beard to music).

Traditionalists often fiercely defend their institutions, and Brahms found himself in the middle of a very public fracas over where Romanticism in music had been heading. Backed by the influential, cranky critic Eduard Hanslick, Brahms faced down Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner, both of whom had jettisoned what they saw as archaic rigidity in compositional technique. How public and ugly was it? Trump versus Cruz is nothing compared with that pitched battle. Eventually, time awarded wins to both sides of that musical war.

That the piano is a fixture in Brahms’ compositions is no surprise. He was an outstanding artist on the instrument and played many of the premieres of his works that featured it. But he hated practicing and occasionally would bark like a dog as he repeated passages until he mastered them.

The piano is the obvious focus of the DPO festival. The Piano Concerto No. 1 is a product of a Brahms at age 26. The hurricane intensity of its opening sets it apart from every other piano concerto in the literature. The gorgeous tranquility that follows reflects the stormy passion under Brahms’ exterior. Brahms makes his soloist wait for the piano’s initial entry for nearly four minutes. The Piano Concerto No. 2, written 22 years later, gives the soloist just five seconds before the keyboard’s first notes. A famous rehearsal practical joke occurred decades back when the orchestra and conductor began playing the second concerto, rattling the soloist who scrambled to remember the opening notes of a work he wasn’t supposed to play.

The two chamber works show a Brahms unfamiliar to most audiences. The Piano Trio #3, Op. 101, written at age 53, for piano, violin and cello, borrows a similar tempestuous opening from the first piano concerto. This is a trio with the loftiness of a symphony and will show off one of the Mead Theatre’s strong suits: a few people can be heard with the same immediacy and intensity as 100. The soloists will be Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano, a faculty member of the Cleveland Institute of Music who has appeared around the world and on nearly two-dozen recordings; Kirstin Greenlaw, the DPO’s principal second violin and Andra Padrichelli, the DPO’s principal cello. The Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 108 followed the third piano trio by one year and is in four movements instead of the more traditional three. It is more lyrical than the piano trio and will feature soloists Jessica Hung, the DPO’s concertmaster, and Pompa-Baldi.

The Brahms Festival takes place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 6 and 7 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in Dayton. Friday’s program features “Tragic Overture,” Piano Trio #3, Op. 101 and Piano Concerto No. 1 with Antonio Pompa-Baldi on piano, Kirstin Greenlaw on violin and Andra Padrichelli on cello. Saturday’s program features “Academic Festival Overture,” Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 108 and Piano Concerto No. 2 with Antonio Pompa-Baldi on piano and Jessica Hung on violin. For tickets or more information, please visit or

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

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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

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