The San Antonio Symphony graced the stage in gowns and tails for a gala concert on March 4th, 2017, under the baton of Akiko Fujimoto. The evening featured guest-soloist Gil Shaham in a performance of Johannes Brahms’s Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77, preceded with works by Dvořák and Beethoven.
In the second half of the 19th century, trends in music were shifting; the New German School (founded by Wagner and Liszt) insisted that reliance upon convention was no longer essential in music, that emotional content should supercede abstract form. This progressive movement, as with anything on the forefront of change, was met with resistance by conservatives and the politically liberal intellectual elite. Leaders among them championed Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) as the unsurpassable model for music based solely on its own sound and structure for content. Fast forward to today, the work of Brahms not only provided the highlight of the San Antonio Symphony’s gala, but the connecting thread between the other composers on the program...without the harmonic and formal innovations of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Brahms couldn’t have cultivated his distinct compositional style; without the mentorship of Brahms, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) never would have gotten his big break. Beethoven began the Romantic Era, Brahms pursued its potential without breaking tradition, and Dvořák implemented it with Czech nationalism.
“I think they are my best orchestral works,” is what Antonín Dvořák said about his triptych depicting Nature, Life, and Love. In Nature’s Realm, the first in the set, is a rarely performed overture with themes depicting Vysoká, a forested municipality where the composer lived and worked. Dvořák’s scoring required winds to put on their multiple hats, shifting abruptly from soloist to duo partner, from section member to full ensemble supporter, and for principal strings to lead their sections through folk song-based content. Next on the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, one of the finest testaments of musical humor in the repertoire. A pristinely edited piece with combinations of humorous set-ups, punch-lines and one-liners, one can almost see Beethoven guffawing to himself while composing it. The San Antonio Symphony hit their stride in the third movement minuet, playing together with a balance and clarity as yet unheard, and presenting a trio section with horn duo, solo clarinet, and cello that was a true treat to hear. The final movement had me cheering the ensemble on, rooting for their exchange of line, crisp note attacks and concise cueing.
A mentor of mine once told me that the difficulty in performing Brahms’s orchestral pieces lies in the fact that parts written by him are so well done, so fulfilling to perform, that every musician in the ensemble is tempted to play their part out the whole time. Gil Shaham and the San Antonio Symphony did not succumb to such temptation. They played the concerto with alacrity, blend, dynamic contrast- pretty much any adjective that suits a high-level professional ensemble. There was no ego aggrandizement in Gil Shaham’s presence as he stood in the spotlight, playing chamber music with his fellow musicians rather than forcing them into his shadow. Maestro Fujimoto and concertmaster Eric Gratz rose to the occasion in collaboration and communication. Even a child with the worst case of chickenpox wouldn’t scratch an itch during Shaham’s performance. The second movement, a pastoral Adagio that opens with winds, showcased the 2nd bassoonist truly earning his paycheck, the principal oboist playing so well that even a mistake (though he made none) would sound disgustingly beautiful, and the principal bassoonist pulling my ear in with her soft, warm tone. Shaham played the romantic melodies with brow furrowed and feet planted, sending into the hall his 1699 Stradivarius sound so soft and rich that Godiva would kill to have it in their chocolate. When the third and final movement commenced, he propelled through double-stops with incredible precision and candor as the symphony accompanied him, driving forward through gypsy-esque themes and bringing the audience to its feet before the final notes were done ringing through the hall.
An occasion worthy of getting dressed up for, the gala event hearkened back to all of what the concert tradition entails: fancy clothing, mood lighting, exceptional talent, schmoozing over drinks...it was the kind of glittery, excitement-infused evening that only live classical music can provide, rich in its tradition of excellence and drama. And during this time in history when life seems to move faster than our thoughts, it was a gift to sit down for the evening with the San Antonio Symphony.