Copyright © 1997, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)


Brahms died 100 years ago, so in 1997 they were playing him to death. Now, it's hard to overdo Brahms because he's so good. Still, some new twists are in order.

With that in mind, Sir Roger Norrington breezed into L.A. in late October with his traveling Brahms show: all four symphonies, several lectures, some chamber music, a few songs, and an open rehearsal. Sir Roger's specialty is playing the music the way it was first played, fresh out of the composer's pen. To that end, he made some interesting changes to some very familiar music.

The rehearsal began at ten a.m. on a Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; the orchestra was the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The only way to see it was to fork over a twenty for an all-day ticket to "The Brahms Experience" - rehearsal, lectures, recitals. I've always wanted to witness a symphony rehearsal (I'd been in them in high school, but that doesn't count). So bye-bye twenty.

Inside, an usher told me to sit "between rows R and Z-Z." I found myself in the back of the main-floor (orchestra) section, surrounded by perhaps two hundred other listeners. I'd arrived late; it was the top of the third, score tied... Actually, they were deep into the second movement of Brahms' Third Symphony, and right away I was adrift on that creamy-dreamy sound - better than a CD, better than a vinyl recording - of the L.A. Phil at play in the Pavilion.

The musicians were dressed casually - some in sneakers - but their music had the professional gloss of an evening concert. The conductor, Sir Roger, was a lanky, bald, bearded man with a hook nose and a lively, cheerful way about him. He led them pretty much straight through one movement after another, coaching them verbally as they played (hard for the audience to hear, but we could pick out the gist of it), sometimes gesticulating almost comically to stress a forte here or a diminuendo there. He stopped them only now and then to rework a passage.

Norrington is a kindly taskmaster: at the end of each movement he would tap his baton several times on the edge of his music stand and intone, "Good work," or "Excellent job." He has an impish sense of humor: at one point, mid-passage, he suddenly turned to the audience and urged us to sing along. He was so good-natured we almost took him up on it.

This was wonderful: the L.A. Phil at full throttle, notes on the fly from Sir Roger, and only a few detours. But is this how an orchestra normally practiced? Are they so good at basic repertoire that a rehearsal amounts to little more than a run-through?

Wrong, Jim. Turns out this was the third drill for these works; we'd missed the early, more gruelling sessions. Not even the vaunted Philharmonic, I suppose, wants the public to watch it struggle. Besides, this open practice amounted to a kind of concert in itself. Suddenly twenty bucks seemed like a pretty good deal: orchestra seats often go for three times as much.

It didn't take long to notice some interesting changes in the landscape onstage. For starters, the violins were splayed out on both sides of the conductor - first violins to the left, seconds sawing away on the right. But where were the cellos? Normally they're on the right, but on this day Sir Roger had shifted them to the second violins' regular spot, just to his left. I had to stare to find the basses - those six-foot fiddles-for-giants that must be played standing up - whose deep voices now sounded, not from the far right, but from the back of the stage, next to the percussion. Wait, there's more: the wind choir (oboes, clarinets, bassoons, flutes) was twice as big as called for, with up to four of each.

We had a zillion questions. Would Sir Roger consent to answer them?

The Third Symphony ended, and Norrington called for a short break. When the workout resumed, he turned to the audience and invited us to sit closer. We scrambled over each other to sit in the first few rows, reserved in the evenings for tycoons and their wives. And hey: it's loud up there! The violins can be piercing, the horns blare like trains at a crossing, the music roars over you like a storm: it's great! (I want to be a tycoon.) Strangely, the acoustics were such that Norrington's directions were as hard to hear as when we were one hundred feet farther back. No matter; the front rows were a kind of paradise.

They were well into the first movement of Brahms' grand, tragic Fourth Symphony when Sir Roger stopped to flip through his score. He frowned, then said, "Wrong score!" and cast about for the right one. (He'd played from memory to that point. I'm always impressed at how conductors can do that.) Later, he had a lengthy back-and-forth with the concertmaster, who dutifully turned and murmured instructions to the first violins behind him; they, in turn, passed the information along until the entire section had understood. This made me think of "RIGHT FULL RUDDER! ... Right full rudder..." passing through a ship's crew. Why didn't Norrington simply bellow out his commands? Clearly there were arcane orchestral traditions I didn't understand.

The Fourth??? Symphony came to its slow, sad ending, and Sir Roger thanked and dismissed the orchestra. We broke out in applause; the players nodded to us awkwardly as they shuffled offstage. Norrington then stepped off the podium, clunked himself down at the edge of the stage, feet dangling, and invited us to ask questions. We huddled around him, all aquiver.

Question: Why are the second violins to the right? "That's how they did it then. It gives a more balanced sound." And the cellos? "They sound louder there. Don't they?" Everyone assented, though I remember thinking, "Can't hear the cellos!" Oh well.

Question: Why are the basses in back? "Von Bülow [the conductor who premiered the Fourth Symphony] asked Brahms if he might spread the basses across the back, and Brahms replied, 'You can do anything you like with them, as long as I'm not sitting with the first-row subscribers.'"

Question: Why were the kettle drums so prominent? "Brahms made good use of them. But Beethoven [Brahms' muse] was the king of timpani. He used them so much they sounded like some relative trapped in a cabinet." Norrington rapped the stage rhythmically with his knuckles. "Help! Let me out! I'm Beethoven's aunt!"

Question: Is this orchestra too big for Brahms' day? "Most orchestras then had nine first violins. The biggest group of the day was the Vienna Philharmonic. They had twelve first violins, like we do today." Did Brahms prefer the bigger group? "No. But he didn't mind, either, and if they used the bigger orchestra, the tradition was to double the wind choir, which we've done here."

Question: How big is the Pavilion compared with halls in Brahms' day? "Oh, he'd find it huge. I've moved the back wall in closer. Makes a better sound. I think musicians should have walls around them." Wink.

My question: If Brahms walked in, would he approve? "Oh, yes. The hall, the orchestra... and most of all, the conducting!"

All in all, it was a wonderful experience, being a fly-on-the-wall as one of the planet's great orchestras prepared some of the world's great music.

So who cares if everyone is playing Brahms to death this year? You can stay away if you like, but this music - subtle, dramatic, gorgeous - is ever-new and always worth revisiting.

Brahms said famously of Beethoven: "You can't have any idea what it's like always to hear such a giant marching behind you!" Especially with Sir Roger Norrington's newly accurate versions of the music, it's safe to say that Brahms is one of those giants, tramping along at our backs, daring us to ignore him.



If you find any part of this work quoted without credit to the author, please let him know! Thank you. jimhull@jimhull.com



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