by Michael Caruso
Unfazed by the “Blizzard of 2016,” Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward, co-founders and co-directors of Lyric Fest, rescheduled the Friday, Jan. 22, date for “Biography in …
by Michael Caruso
Unfazed by the “Blizzard of 2016,” Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward, co-founders and co-directors of Lyric Fest, rescheduled the Friday, Jan. 22, date for “Biography in Music: Johannes Brahms” to Jan. 29 in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Joined by four singers and one actor, they presented a moving portrait of one of classical music’s most perplexing personalities through a deft combination of narration and music.
Of all the truly great composers of the standard classical canon, Brahms (1833-1897) is quite possibly the most contradictory in regard to himself and the times in which he lived. He lived his life in the emotional tumult of the Romantic era, yet he was a true classicist who revered the intellectual balance of the Austro-Germanic traditions handed down to him by Bach, Haydn and Beethoven.
A master of the techniques of Bach’s counterpoint, Haydn’s structure and Beethoven’s development, he was also a writer of moving melodies the equal of Handel, Mozart and Schubert. His four Symphonies, two Piano Concerti, Violin Concerto and Double Concerto earned him a place in “The Three Bs” with Bach and Beethoven, yet he is at his most revelatory in musical miniatures such as short piano pieces and songs, known as lieder.
Brahms was always considered a traditionalist in opposition to the revolutionary Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner and an intellectual opposed to the sentimental Peter Tchaikovsky and the mystical Anton Bruckner. Nonetheless, his sublime “German” Requiem is not only radical in its use of German rather than Latin, but it also turns the very notion of a Requiem upside down by its having been composed for those who mourn rather than for the souls of the dead. He composed what many, including myself, consider the greatest Requiem of them all.
Lyric Fest’s Friday evening program strove successfully to open a window onto Brahms’ personality by placing his letters alongside the music he composed at the time they were written. With East Falls’ Suzanne DuPlantis and actor Jim Bergwall reading the letters with telling flair and West Mt. Airy pianist Laura Ward accompanying vocalists Laura Strickling, Chrystal E. Williams, Anthony Whitson-Martini and Jonas Hacker, the ensemble made its way through a wisely chosen selection of Brahms' lieder.
And what a gorgeous set of songs they hit upon, ranging from those composed when Brahms was barely out of his teens to those from the mature portion of his career.
Although officially listed as the “accompanist,” Laura Ward was the star of the evening. Brahms assigned each piano part for each song with the task of creating an entire world of feelings and senses from what is basically a percussion instrument. And yet Ward offered a tonal spectrum that was both profound in its fullness and shimmering in its transparency. Every melodic line was bound together in a seamless legato every singer should envy and emulate.
Listening to her play, I remembered hearing Artur Rubinstein caution a young pianist not to play Brahms’ music as though it were old and musty. “Everyone nowadays thinks of Brahms as an ‘old master,'” Rubinstein said, “but remember, I was 10 when he died. Brahms was modern music for me. Play it like it’s still new.” And so it remains for us in its power to touch the heart.
Piffaro, Philadelphia’s Renaissance Band, will hold its 6th Biannual National Recorder Competition Saturday, Feb. 6, 6:30 p.m. in the Mary Louise Curtis Branch of Settlement Music School, 416 Queen St. in Queen Village. Taking part in the high school division is West Mt. Airy’s Noah Shipley. A recorder student of Rainer Beckmann, Noah is also a member of the Keystone State Boys Choir.
The competition is free and open to the public. There is a secure parking lot on site. For more information, call 215-235-8469.