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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 20,

2004 issue of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Understanding Brahms

Brahms is big this season. Not that it’s the anniversary of his birth

or of his death. His popularity is more like the simultaneous

invention of the automobile or calculus or the appearance of certain

primitive architectural forms at different locations on the globe.

Spontaneously, and within a short time-span, the Tokyo String Quartet

decided to perform the complete string quartets and other chamber

works of Brahms; Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series scheduled a

nine-part, month-long Brahms festival, which is now in full swing; and

Brahms, whose compositions normally pile up only an also-ran position,

overtook Beethoven in programming during the 2004-’05 season in

central New Jersey (U.S. 1, October 10).

Even Lindsey Christiansen, who claimed that Johannes Brahms was too

old-fashioned for the Lieder festival she organized this summer at

Rider University’s Westminster Choir College, had already committed

herself to putting on a Brahms festival. The festival events take

place from Thursday through Sunday, October 21 through 24.

Westminster students perform works for voice and piano in Gill Chapel

on Rider University’s main campus in Lawrenceville at 8 p.m. Thursday,

October 21. Professor of voice Christiansen and Barry Seldes,

professor of political science put Brahms into his cultural context in

a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m.

Andrew Megill, associate professor of choral conducting, conducts the

Westminster Kantorei in a program entitled "Blessed: German Requiems

Before Brahms" at 8 p.m. Friday, October 22, in Bristol Chapel on the

Westminster campus. Bach scholar Robin Leaver, professor of sacred

music at Westminster, gives a pre-performance lecture at 7 p.m.

A day-long seminar beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, October 23,

features three afternoon tracks devoted to Brahms’ music. James

Goldsworthy and Phyllis Alpert Lehrer lead the piano track, Joseph

Flummerfelt and Andrew Megill lead the choral track, and Christiansen

and Dalton Baldwin lead the voice track. The Christiansen-Seldes team

leads an opening plenary session at 9 a.m. on "Musical Expression and

Political Culture of Brahms’ Vienna."

Styra Avins, author of "Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters" delivers a

closing plenary lecture at 4 p.m. entitled "What Would Brahms Have

Said: Some Thoughts about the Festival, Brahms Himself, and his Ideas

on Performance."

To obtain locations for the Saturday seminar, participants must

register. Registration takes place in Thayer Lounge at the Student

Center from 8:15 to 8:45. Pre-registration is possible at the

Continuing Education Office at 609-924-7416 or

A concert of choral and chamber works by Brahms takes place Saturday,

October 23, at 8 p.m. in Bristol Chapel. Performers include the

Westminster Choir with Conductor Laureate Joseph Flummerfelt and

pianists Ena Bronstein Barton and Phyllis Alpert Lehrer. James

Goldsworthy, pianist, and Robert Annis, clarinet, also perform. The

Choir’s all-Brahms recording, "Singing for Pleasure," conducted by

Flummerfelt, was cited in The New York Times as one of the critic’s

choices among all existing Brahms recordings in 2002.

A program of Brahms’ songs concludes the festival Sunday, October 24,

at 3 p.m. in Bristol Chapel. Performers are vocalists Sally Wolf,

Laura Brooks Rice, Matthew Polenzani, and Elem Eley; and pianists

Dalton Baldwin and J. J. Penna. A pre-performance lecture by

Christiansen is at 2 p.m.

Polenzani has the highest profile among the Westminster performers.

Cast as Prince Tamino, the earnest Romantic lead, he played his first

starring role in the Metropolitan Opera’s splashy new production of

Mozart’s Magic Flute earlier this month. Julie Taymor, who directed

"The Lion King," directed the Met production.

In a telephone interview from her Westminster office Christiansen

answers the double question: "Why Brahms, and why now?" in a simple

and parochial way. "Because the choir is singing ‘Ein Deutsches

Requiem’ twice. In "Ein Deutsches Requiem" ["A German Requiem"] Brahms

used Luther’s German translation of the Bible as his text, rather than

the Latin mass. The Westminster Choir appears in New York’s Avery

Fischer Hall on November 8 with the Dresden Philharmonic under

Fruhbeck de Burgos. In the period November 19 through 21 the choir

performs the piece with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra conducted by

its new artistic director, Neeme Jarvi.

"It’s a great opportunity to focus on Brahms," Christiansen says.

The Westminster festival’s focus on Brahms has a scope larger than the

music. Westminster’s voice professor Christiansen and Rider’s

political science professor Seldes have the habit of collaborating.

Their joint appearances give an extra dimension to music by talking

politics, and provide the musical details for those whose main

emphasis is the political picture.

"The first program, at the Rider campus," says Christiansen, "tries to

incorporate both campuses. Barry talks on culture. I talk on music and

what to listen to. Brahms was musically conservative in a world that

was falling apart. Musically, there were two factions: Brahms and

Wagner. Brahms was the best of the old world. He stood for musical

structure and tradition."

The Friday evening program devotes itself to Brahms’ musical and

political roots by turning to north German choral music. The

academically-labeled pre-concert lecture "German Funeral Music in the

Protestant Tradition" would probably attract more votes with a

punchier title. Politically and musically, the substance is

provocative. In the days before German unification in 1871 tensions

between the Protestant north and the Catholic south seemed

insuperable. The legacy of the 30 Years War in the 17th century

endured, raising flash points in what is now Germany and Austria.

Brahms "German Requiem" was, in a way, the musically uncouth act of a

north German Protestant transplanted to Catholic Vienna. It had its

roots in the Protestant music of Heinrich Schuetz, who wrote as a

Protestant partisan during the 30 Years War, and Johann Sebastian Bach

and his sons. In any case, Brahms was known for his bad manners.

The theme of tension between north and south German re-emerges when

Christiansen and Seldes open the Saturday seminars by considering

Brahms in Vienna. "There’s the dichotomy between southern

expressiveness and romanticism held in check by northern structure,"

Christiansen says. "You can see it in Brahms’ rhythm. A typically

Brahmsian trait is the holding in of expression. There’s always a

dynamism between architectural structure and the warmth that goes

through it."

Notably absent from the Westminster Brahms festival is the orchestral

music that solidifies Brahms’ reputation. "Where would we get an

orchestra?" Christian asks rhetorically. "Chamber music is the theme

of the festival, and that includes the piano stuff and the lieder.

There’s tons of it and it’s extraordinarily gorgeous stuff."

"We find ourselves attracted to Brahms’ chamber music emotionally,"

Christiansen says. "People respond to it directly. Attending a lecture

makes it richer, but it’s not really necessary. You don’t have to come

to Brahms. Brahms comes to you."

– Elaine Strauss

Brahm’s Festival. Westminster Choir College of Rider University;

Thursday, October 21 through Sunday, October 24. Tickets: $15 and $20.

Call 609-921-2663.

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