A Potent Performance
Writer’s comment: This paper, written for Introduction to Music, was one of my first attempts at describing a piece of music or, for that matter, any work of art. As a fermentation science major, I am often asked to describe and report on the many phenomena occurring in my various laboratory classes, but rarely am I asked to do so on something such as a live concert performance.
Describing art, I found, requires a different language from that spoken by the scientist. A music critic or historian certainly would not write about a piece of music using Greek letters, equations, or bar graphs (no pun intended); similarly, a physicist would scowl at a lab report adorned with metaphor, simile, and personification.
I enjoyed doing this assignment because it required me to be very specific, as in a scientific report, while at the same time allowing me to include personal emotions evoked by the music. The following is my best attempt to recreate on paper what I heard and felt that night. I don’t know if you’ll actually be able to hear the Brahms piece as you read through, so you might want to give it a listen yourself. After all, to quote the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Instructor’s comment: Even with the most sophisticated “state-of-the-art” equipment, recordings cannot duplicate the presence, quality, and range of live sound. The composer depends on the interaction between the performer(s) and the audience to realize artistic satisfaction. Some performances (opera, for example) must be seen as well as heard and depend on the physical surroundings for involvement not possible through recorded sound.
As a part of the requirement for Music 10, each student must attend two live performances and submit a concert report on each. The concerts must feature composers, styles, or genres similar to those in the syllabus.
The reports should demonstrate “Active Listening” and not be merely reviews or critiques. I am interested in the student’s experience at this particular performance. There is no obligation to use fancy terminology. Just tell me what happened, how it affected you, how this experience will influence your plans for future concert attendance? I am particularly moved by a report that helps me to relive the concert or one that makes me sorry that I missed it. David’s essay does just that.
—Deborah Pittman, Lecturer, Music Department
The University of California, Davis Symphony Orchestra conducted by D. Kern Holoman and featuring Michael Boriskin on piano performed in Freeborn Hall on Sunday, December 3, l989. Included in the program were works by the German twentieth-century composer Paul Hindemith and the German romantic composer Johannes Brahms. Although both pieces were quite long, the audience, comprised mainly of students (the concert was free), seemed dazzled by Holoman’s masterful command and Boriskin’s virtuosic display on the keyboard.
The first piece performed, Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis der Maler, called for the entire orchestra featuring an enormous string and brass section as well as a percussion section complete with glockenspiel and triangle. After a brief intermission, Michael Boriskin appeared on stage with the orchestra for a splendid performance of Brahms’s Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, opus 83. Since both pieces were quite long, this discussion will be devoted to the work by Brahms.
The first movement, Allegro non troppo, opened with a lone French horn stating the theme, which was then emulated by the piano and later by the rest of the orchestra, or as the program notes state: “The languid and rather distant horn call at the beginning and the soloist’s placid response are taken up for a moment by the woodwinds and then the strings, only to ebb away and be succeeded by the soloist’s vehement entry.” The horn call was indeed distant and seemed to project from a point much farther than the back row of the orchestra. In contrast to Boriskin’s position front and center stage, the overall effect was to give the listener the impression that a distant conversation between the two was occurring.
As the movement progressed, the remaining voices of the orchestra entered into the conversation between horn and piano, segueing back and forth from passage to passage. The texture of the orchestral segments became progressively more complex. During some brief passages the violas, cellos and double bass played pizzicato against the swelling, lush violins, marking even time and creating an almost ground bass feel.
The key of the first movement was predominantly major; however, there were brief shifts to the minor key by the piano, creating argument in the conversation with the orchestral passages. Often throughout the first movement, the dialogue between piano and orchestra subsided to a soft piano so that the distant horns could come forth again with the theme. A large crescendo in the orchestra and a series of rapid, fluttering trills on the higher keys of the piano brought Allegro non troppo to climactic end.
The theme of the second movement, Allegro appasionato, was forcefully stated in forte on the piano. The minor key predominated throughout Allegro appasionato, which, combined with passages ranging in dynamics from piano to fortissimo, gave the movement a wrathful urgency. Although much of the brass section (specifically, cornets, trumpets, trombones, and bass tubas) and much of the percussion section were excluded from the score by Brahms, the movement nevertheless packed the full punch one might associate with these two sections. Brahms’s adept gift for orchestration and Boriskin’s command over the potency of the instrument were probably most responsible for the cohesiveness that might otherwise have been lost without these two vital sections.
The meter was quite varied throughout the movement, and the listener was often misled as to the rhythmic direction. This heightened the overall uncertainty and urgency of Allegro appasionato.
The third movement, Andante, opened with a melancholy, passionate cello solo in the major key, behind which the rest of the strings and woodwinds wistfully cooed a swaying chordal accompaniment. The piano bashfully appeared playing widely space arpeggiated notes, which blossomed into a brief solo. At some points the texture became homophonic, with the strings playing quavering chords upon which the piano layered a most delicate, lithesome melody.
The melancholy mood was heightened by an occasional shift to the minor key; however, the movement did not rely solely upon modality to create this sentiment. The theme stated by the opening solo cello reappeared played by solo viola. The polished vibrato of the principal violist, Jennifer R. Allen, was enough to purge tears of pent-up emotions from the eyes of the listener. Once again, Brahms’s adroit orchestration ability was exemplified by his choice of cello and viola—with their warm, mellow timbre—as the primary solo instruments for what was perhaps the most beautiful of the four movements.
The final movement of the work, Allegretto grazioso, was a light and cheery piece that opened with Boriskin playing a lively melody that scurried across the keyboard, stopping only for an occasional fast trill in the higher registers. The piano then settled into a dotted rhythm pattern—the theme—which was then playfully mimicked by the strings.
Unlike the preceding three movements, there was no shift to the minor key in the Allegretto grazioso, resolving the tension and urgency of the first two movements and brightening the melancholy mood of the third, or, to quote the program notes again: “The carefree spirit of the movement seems the perfect release from the various passions of the first three.”
The piano and strings seemed to be blended more in the fourth movement. Often the two would play the thematic rhythmic pattern in unison, heavily accenting and separating the notes. A rapid run up the keys of the piano and a final swell in the strings brought Allegretto grazioso to an abrupt end.
Prior to attending this concert, I had never seen a performance involving piano and orchestra, and quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if it would work. I thought that the piano might overpower the orchestra, or vice versa, or that the combination would be too busy. I found that with a proper balance in the arrangement between piano and orchestra, and a skillful conductor such as D. Kern Holoman collaborating with a virtuoso such as Michael Boriskin, the genre can be most satisfying.