Concert features Ives, Brahms


November 30, 2007|By Judah E. Adashi | Judah E. Adashi,special to the sun

Music director Jason Love and the Columbia Orchestra will present their final concert of 2007 at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Jim Rouse Theatre. The evening begins with Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2, and ends with Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring acclaimed pianist Brian Ganz, a Howard County native who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory.

At first glance, a program devoted to the music of Ives and Brahms might suggest a cacophonous burst of Americana followed by a heady dose of straightforward romanticism. Happily, one of the many joys of concert-going is that such expectations are often upended the moment the orchestra begins to play.

Indeed, listeners accustomed to Ives' gleeful sonic experiments might be surprised to find the composer sounding not unlike Brahms, a predecessor whom Ives held in high esteem. Ives is perhaps best known for his evocations of the marching bands of his New England youth, and for his quotations of American folk and popular songs. Both gestures are to be found in his Second Symphony, but for the most part seamlessly woven into the fabric of a work steeped in the European symphonic tradition.

The piece begins with a restrained Andante Moderato, much of which is given over to a brooding, contrapuntal essay for strings alone, later bolstered by the horns and subtle touches from the oboe and bassoons. An animated Allegro follows, then a hymn-like Adagio Cantabile. The brief Lento Maestoso offers a stately recapitulation of the opening movement, then quickly gives way to the rollicking Rondo-Allegro non troppo. With its abrupt juxtapositions and its overt use of several borrowed tunes, this bumptious finale is the most conspicuously Ivesian movement in the work.

As for Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, the unexpected materializes not in the work's musical language, but in its unusual design. The piece was initially conceived for two pianos, then recast as a symphony before reaching its final form. This may account for the relative lack of bravura passages for the soloist. The concerto comes across as chamber music on a large scale, its introspective piano part in dialogue with a rotating cast of soloists and ensembles from within the orchestra.

The opening Maestoso alternates between Beethovenian grandeur and lyrical meditation. Brahms described the tender Adagio as a musical portrait of Clara Schumann, with whom he was falling in love; the protracted death of her husband (and Brahms' dear friend) Robert haunts the entire concerto. As in the Ives, the most characteristic music - in this case, with respect to genre rather than style - emerges in the hard-driving Rondo-Allegro non troppo, in which the pianist finally leads the charge.

If this music challenges certain expectations we have of its creators, this only affirms their ability to take on familiar forms in highly individual ways. Regardless of stylistic or structural choices, their voices are unmistakable. As Leonard Bernstein wrote of Ives' Second Symphony, it "never sounds like Brahms and Wagner and the rest. It sounds like Ives." For a composer, there is no greater compliment.

Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for those 60 and older, and $10 for full-time students under 24. At 6:30 p.m., Bill Scanlan Murphy of Howard Community College will present a pre-concert lecture. For information, call 410 465-8777, visit, or e-mail ticketinfo@columbiaorchestra. org.

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