This month the National Symphony Orchestra's Composer Portrait concert series enters its third season with Johannes Brahms on the program, June 9-11. The series' success is due to many factors, according to NSO music director Leonard Slatkin, who has spearheaded efforts to bring education into the concert hall throughout his career.
"It has a lot to do with the current state of music education in our school systems," Slatkin explains. "We are well into the second generation that does not support or encourage musical learning in schools. And I feel that it is incumbent on the private musical institutions to take on the role of educators in a very broad sense, not just performing children's concerts but providing truly educational events that profile major composers."
Begun in 2003 with Tchaikovsky, and continued last season with Beethoven, the Composer Portrait concerts include several musical excerpts from the composers' works that illustrate major events in their lives as narrated by author Martin Goldsmith, Slatkin's collaborator on all three portraits thus far (next season features Mozart in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of his birth). After intermission, the orchestra returns with Maestro Slatkin to perform one complete work‹in this season's concerts, it will be Brahms's First Symphony.
"We basically have a bio with music from different periods in their lives," says Slatkin. "We analyze music in sections before playing it straight through, and afterward there's a discussion between me, Martin, and one or two musicians. It's geared toward parents and their children, or toward the average concertgoers who feel that there is more that they want to learn about these composers."
Even those many audience members who are quite familiar with the composer and his music may come away with a new appreciation for his accomplishments. "By the end of the evening, listeners will have a better idea of just who these composers were and what drove them. And so they will also have a greater understanding of the context of the pieces we play," Goldsmith notes. "The works become slightly less abstract in this way."
As befits their status as musician and author, respectively, Slatkin decides what the musical selections will be and Goldsmith turns a biography of the composer in question into a workable, and performable, text. "Before I begin writing I know what pieces will be played," Goldsmith explains. "So it's a matter of telling the life of the composer through the music that's been chosen. Along the way I share the story of the composer's life and try to reveal the character of the man and what he was thinking about when he composed certain pieces."
Since Brahms wrote relatively little orchestral music‹four symphonies and several concertos‹some of his masterly chamber music will be excerpted as well in this month's Composer Portrait concerts, including the towering Clarinet Quintet and one of his remarkable String Sextets.
Brahms's Symphony No. 1, which was dubbed "Beethoven's Tenth" after its premiere, is the perfect statement from the composer with which to end the program, according to both Slatkin and Goldsmith. "It encapsulates Brahms's position as a full-blooded romantic, but also someone who was breaking a lot of rules, thinking of the symphony in a different way than his predecessors," the conductor says, while the author adds, "It is one of the great symphonies of the 19th century."
Goldsmith continues: "It was the culmination of what was a very long gestation period. He worked on it off and on for over 15 years. He said to friends, 'You don't know what it feels like to hear the tramp of giants behind you,' because he was very aware of Beethoven and of his own place in music history. He saw himself at the end of a line that stretched back to Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann. He couldn't just write any symphony. It had to be great. 'Perfect it must be,' as Brahms himself said."
In addition to educating audiences, the Composer Portrait series has been successful in humanizing men who have been lionized for more than a century. "The music is the thing, but these great composers were also human beings with desires, disappointments, and ambitions," Goldsmith argues. "It's not that the notes sound any different to our ears once we know something more. But our minds are different. And our realization of their humanity is different. It becomes not a succession of notes heard out of context in the concert hall, but because the composer now stands before us in three dimensions, the music and the life have a context, and the music is an expression of a life of pain and joy and striving.
"As they say, people from seven to 70 are in the market for inspiration and good storytelling," the author continues. "These lives are exciting, sad, inspirational‹they're very human stories. It's important for us to learn more about them."
For his part, Slatkin is pleased at the audience reaction to the Portraits thus far. "It's phenomenal that a lot of people have returned to regular symphony concerts [after attending this series]. Lots of people came back to Beethoven after attending the Tchaikovsky, and I have no reason to think that Brahms won't do the same," he says. "I'm also hoping that other orchestras will be interested enough to borrow the materials and put the Portraits on themselves. After all, everything's there‹the texts and the musical cues. It would be great if other orchestras would take advantage of this golden opportunity."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.