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DSO festival will show Brahms is more than just a lullabye

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Thursday, February 11, 2016

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Most of the world knows Johannes Brahms for a lullaby.

But during the next three weeks Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra hope to wake up audiences to the balance of the 19th century German composer's ouvre.

This month's Brahms Festival is the DSO's third Winter Music Festival, following a 2013 immersion into Ludwig Van Beethoven and last year's survey of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. As Slatkin explains, "The initial rationale behind this idea was that during those winter months we lose many of our loyal patrons to either the south or the mountains. They go away. I was trying to think of some way to attract a different audience, and a kind of total immersion concept emerged from my head."

It proved to popular, and Slatkin is confident that the Brahms series -- 18 events between Thursday, Feb. 11, and Feb. 27 -- will have just as much appeal. And perhaps be even more illuminating.

The Hamburg-born composer (1833-1897) was not as prolific as other classical icons, especially on the orchestral front, and certainly didn't produce as much work as the Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach, with whom Brahms is often group as "The Three B's." He penned four symphonies, four Cocnerti -- including a Double Concerto for violin and cello -- two rarely performed Serenades, a pair of overtures. three Hungarian dances and his Haydn Variations. That offers Slatkin and the DSO a chance to present its most comprehensive treatment yet of a single composer.

"We're doing virtually every piece he wrote for orchestra except for vocal works," Slatkin says. "We don't think about Brahms as being that limited, but in reality he only wrote 13 pieces for orchestra, so we're able to do all of them over three weeks. That's something that rarely occurs."

All of them -- and more, as it turns out. Brahms' orchestral pieces weren't quite enough to fill the three programs, so the DSO will also include two more "substantial pieces" from his body of work, a Piano Quartet in G minor and a Clarinet Sonatas as orchestrated by Luciano Berio.

Slatkin notes that "most of us believe that (Brahms) actually wrote more, but those pieces have been lost to posterity because of Brahms' acknowledged perfectionism and insecurities -- the latter especially true when he compared his work to Beethoven's.

First taught by his father, who was also a musician, Brahms earned money for the family by playing piano in German dance halls and brothels, where he was believed to have been abused. He later studied piano and cello with masters in Germany and Austria, but his star really ascended during the fall of 1853, when he was championed by fellow composer and music critic Robert Schumann as a musician "destined to give ideal expression to the times." It was the beginning of a soap operatic relationship that saw Brahms fall in love with Schumann's wife Clara after he was committed to an asylum.

Clara Schumann also played many of Brahms' pieces on piano, while violinist Joseph Joachim was a frequent ally as well. But while prideful, Brahms was not one to champion himself; composer and scholar Jan Swafford writes in the DSO festival program that "speaking about his own work (Brahms) was usually ironic or dismissive," once referring to his Fourth Symphony as "a bunch of polkas and waltzes." Brahms was also known to burn or throw pieces in the river that "didn't measure up to his unforgiving standards" and kept his output determinedly low.

The DSO concerts will feature a variety of guest soloists, including principal clarinetist Ralph Skiano, French pianist Helene Grimaud, violinist Baiba Skride and cellist Danjulo Ishizaka. The lineup will be fleshed out with complementary events, including: performances of Brahms` Liebeslieder Waltzes with vocalists from the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit Institute of Arts' Kresege Court; a Brahms, Bears & Burlesque show Feb. 18 in the Music Box at the Fisher Music Center which also includes a beard contest; a yoga class on Feb. 21 in the Fisher center set to Brahms' chamber music, including the lullaby; and a free Late Night Lieder on Feb. 27 featuring student musicians from Michigan State, Wayne State, Oakland and Bowling Green State universities.

Slatkin hopes that the net effect of the Brahms Festival will be an insight into the composer's originality and distinctiveness. "Each (piece) is a masterwork, filled with individuality and variety," Slatkin explains. "Unlike Beethoven, there are almost no traces of what music had come before. Each symphony and concerto are totally unique, inhabiting worlds that simply did not exist until Brahms invented them.

"By presenting all this work over a compact period, I think there's a potential for enormous discovery for the audience."

Detroit Symphony Orchestra Brahms Festival

Thursday, Feb. 11-Feb. 28.

Most events take place at the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit.

For schedules, performance times and ticket prices, call 313-576-5111 or visit dso.org.


Johannes Brahms was born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany.

As a teenager he played in dance halls and brothels to help earn money for his family.

Franz List performed a 20-year-old Brahms' Scherzo Op. 4 when they met during the spring of 1853 in Weimar.

Brahms wrote "Weigenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht" ("Good Evening, Good Night" -- aka Brahms' Lullaby -- in 1858 for a friend, Bertha Faber, who had given birth to her second child.

He was lifelong friend and admirer of fellow composer Johann Strauss II. He once autographed a hand fan for Strauss' wife Adele with the first notes of Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz accompanied by the words "Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms!"

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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