Tuesday, April 11, 2006

New World non sequiturs

Brahms' 2nd Symphony is one of those classical warhorses that almost everyone loves, and most orchestra musicians love to play it as well. Part of the New World Symphony's mission is to be fresh and innovative though - lately we've been advertising "Symphony with a Twist," concerts with a little something different - and so this weekend's concerts are packaged as "Brahms meets the moderns." The program combines Brahms' 2nd Symphony (and Academic Festival Overture) with a contemporary percussion concerto by Christopher Rouse, "Der Gerettete Alberich."

I usually like puzzles, and New World Symphony programs can be as tricky as any sudoku. I'm not quite sure what Brahms and Rouse have to do with eachother, but hopefully I'll figure something out. It's easy to say that an essential composer like Brahms influenced Rouse, along with every other contemporary composer - that's a bit of a cop-out, if you ask me. The Rouse piece is more directly linked to Wagner, who was a contemporary and rival to Brahms. Many people at the time thought of Brahms as a conservative and a throwback, sticking to the old rules and rehashing the old forms while Wagner, Strauss, and Lizst were pioneering new structures and sonorities. In retrospect, though, Brahms was perhaps a pioneer himself, a forerunner to Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and countless other composers who reinvented older music in a personal, modern idiom. His Symphony no. 2 is steeped in nostalgia, longing, and the joys of recreating the past.

No one will confuse Rouse with Brahms, but his piece does seem to have a similar fondness for the past. Guest conductor Marin Alsop introduced it to us by saying it's like a sequel to the Ring - as if it needed a sequel. Wagner pretty much killed off all his characters in Götterdämmerung, but he left the possibility that the dwarf Alberich may have survived. So Rouse revived Alberich and brought his leitmotifs together in a modern, percussion, genre-bending piece. Like the Brahms, a lot of this music will be familiar to almost any classical music listeners, even those normally intimidated by contemporary percussion concertos. Hopefully there will be some intriguing surprises as well, and programmatic non-sequiturs that make the familiar sound new.

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