For tomorrow’s concert of the Aiken Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Donald Portnoy has selected the title “Brahms: Magnitude and Power.” Indeed, both works highlighted in the program, not only the Brahms Violin Concerto but also the second symphony by Sibelius, fit that descriptive subtitle since they are equally forceful and uplifting.
Each selection is written in the key of D Major, what baroque composers referred to as the “key of glory” – consider Telemann’s horn concerti and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” – and each may very well ultimately inspire in the audience a feeling of triumphant optimism.
Johannes Brahms wrote only one violin concerto, but it is considered a masterpiece of the genre. Composed in 1878 for his longtime friend, the virtuoso Joseph Joachim, the concerto was premiered in Leipzig the following year with Brahms himself at the podium. A humorous anecdote is sometimes attached to that momentous occasion; it is said the audience members at the premiere were distracted from the magnificence of the performance by the fact that Brahms had failed to hook up his suspenders properly. This wardrobe malfunction on the part of the composer-conductor led some in the audience to fail to keep their attention on the music.
Joachim and Brahms had been friends since their early twenties – they met in 1853 – and the violinist is credited with having introduced Brahms to Robert and Clara Schumann, whose subsequent influence on his art and his personal life cannot be underestimated. Joachim also considered himself, to some extent, to be a collaborator in the composition of the concerto; in fact, Brahms shared with him the violin parts in draft and asked his advice about their playability. This is not surprising since the two men trusted one another, and Brahms himself was much more comfortable with the piano.
The violin soloist for the ASO concert will be Jennifer Frautschi, a California native who studied at Harvard, the New England Conservatory and Juilliard. Since her student days, she has carved out a significant career on both the stage and in the recording studio. Her CDs were twice nominated for Grammy awards, one in the category of best instrumental soloist with orchestra and the other in the category of best chamber music performance. The latter, a recording of works by Arnold Schoenberg, she made as a member of the Fred Sherry Quartet. Frautschi currently teaches at Stony Brook University.
The second D Major work of the evening is the second symphony of Jean Sibelius. Sometimes subtitled the “Symphony of Independence” because it was composed at a time when the expression of Finnish culture was banned by the country’s Russian overlords, the “Symphony No. 2” was not, in fact, written as an outpouring of patriotic feeling. Although he certainly loved his homeland, Sibelius actually conjured up most of the major musical material for this work during a vacation in 1901 on the Italian coast.
Italy has a long history of inspiring the creativity of artists from other lands, especially composers more accustomed to much colder climates. Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Mendelssohn, just to name a few, came under the spell of that country’s magical landscape and warm, embracing culture.
Sibelius applied the finishing touches to the work back in his homeland, and the symphony premiered in Helsinki in 1902. Audiences need to be aware that although it is written in four movements, there is generally no pause between the third and fourth.
For information about tickets for tomorrow’s 7:30 p.m. concert at USCA’s Etherredge Center, the second of nine concerts in the ASO’s 2019-2020 season, visit the orchestra’s website or call 803-220-7251. Dr. Portnoy’s informative pre-concert talk begins at 6:30.