Johannes Brahms' place in musical history is assured. Indeed, while he was still alive, conductor Claus von Bülow already spoke of him as one of the great B's, equal to Bach and Beethoven. So there's certainly no need to undertake a festival entirely devoted to his music, right?
Jane S. Moss disagrees.
"The great composers can always‹and this is why they're such miraculous creatures‹absorb new interpretations, new visions of their music," says Moss, Lincoln Center's Vice President of Programming. "They always deserve revisiting in an in-depth fashion. What's so extraordinary about composers like Brahms is that you can return to them again and again and hear something new: their genius is revealed in a fresh way. They effortlessly move from century to century, truly transcending time."
Brahms is revisited in the series The Classical Romantic: The Music of Johannes Brahms (October 7-November 15), the latest Great Performers mini-festival to display the many facets of a single composer. Moss's explanation notwithstanding, Brahms' elevated place in the great composers pantheon might be a roadblock to any new appreciation of his genius. How, for example, can one demonstrate the continued relevance of Brahms' music when it is so frequently performed already? His four symphonies are as sturdy a building block for any orchestra's season as any other composer's, his two titanic piano concertos are consistently played by the world's top virtuosos, and his Ein deutsches Requiem attracts the world's greatest choral singers by virtue of its miraculous vocal writing. So what can Great Performers offer?
To Moss, Great Performers' mandate is simply contained in its name: to present the world's greatest musicians playing the world's greatest music.
"When we did our Sibelius festival," she says, "there was no doubt that we would have Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony because Sir Colin is our best Sibelius interpreter, as he is for Berlioz, whom we also recently championed. And the same goes for Brahms: It really started with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig and conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who was already scheduled to play this season. Blomstedt liked the idea of doing two all-Brahms programs, and we built the festival from there."
Along with Sibelius and Berlioz, Great Performers has also focused on contemporary composers like John Adams and, last season, Louis Andriessen. But all the pieces have to fall into place to get these mini-festivals off the ground.
"These projects frequently evolve in a variety of ways," says Moss. "In many cases, we create them from scratch, and in some cases, we have an orchestra doing an all-Brahms program, and we take it from there. It varies from season to season, but we usually start with the orchestra programs first. Here, we wanted to involve orchestras from Brahms' homeland. So getting both the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig and the Dresden Philharmonic gives the festival a unique symmetry."
The orchestras' programs give audiences a cross-section of Brahms' mastery of symphonic forms. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, principal conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic, leads the final two concerts of the Brahms festival on November 7 and 8 at Avery Fisher Hall: the first concert pairs the D-major Violin Concerto (Julia Fischer is soloist) with the monumental Symphony No. 1 in C minor; the second concert is Ein deutsches Requiem, with vocal soloists Twyla Robinson and Nathan Gunn, along with the Westminster Choir led by Joseph Flummerfelt.
Blomstedt and his Leipzig musicians play October 18 and 19 at Avery Fisher Hall. Both programs, which conclude with symphonies (No. 2 and No. 4), open with accounts of both Brahms piano concertos by Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev. Conspicuously absent from the four orchestral programs is Brahms' Symphony No. 3. "We didn't think about programming all four symphonies," Moss explains. "We weren't really looking at Brahms in that way of total immersion. What came into play was my eagerness to hear Pletnev doing both piano concertos, since it's important to hear him do Brahms. So that took up a fair amount of programming time."
The two orchestra appearances bookend a festival that looks at Brahms in myriad ways‹most notably his overlooked contributions to the Germanic song literature and chamber music. "We took the core element of the festival‹orchestral music‹and built on it through other series like Art of the Song, What Makes It Great?, and our Sunday morning concerts," Moss says.
On November 15 What Makes It Great? host Robert Kapilow dissects lieder by Brahms, Wolf, and Mahler along with baritone Christòpheren Nomura at the Walter Reade Theater, which is where cellist Natalie Clein and pianist Charles Owen will play two Brahms cello sonatas alongside Anton Webern works on October 31. And Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair kicks off the entire festival on October 17 at Alice Tully Hall with an ambitious all-Brahms lieder recital accompanied by pianist Russell Ryan.
Great Performers has brought film programming front and center over the last few seasons, and its two Brahms on Film programs, scheduled for October 25 at the Walter Reade Theater, build on that tradition. The four films included show the best Brahms interpreters in performance: Toscanini conducting the First Symphony (1951), Kleiber leading the Fourth Symphony (1998), pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing Four Ballades (1981), and violinist David Oistrakh and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich performing the Double Concerto (1965).
Of Lincoln Center's continuing commitment to this important series, Moss is rightly proud. Mostly Mozart on Film was done for the first time this summer, and Great Performers' Pulling Strings: Violinists on Film arrives in spring 2005. "We've really carved out a niche with this," she says. "We have become real specialists in the world of archival film footage with these vintage performances. What's most amazing is that, even though they're only on film, they're remarkably 'present.'"
The same could be said, of course, for the "classical romantic" music of Johannes Brahms.
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.