Peter Oundjian conducting the ASO, January 2018 (credit: Raftermen)

Atlanta Symphony shows two faces of Romanticism in Brahms and Strauss

Mark Gresham | 22 MAR 2019

Thursday night’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra showed off the two different streams taken by 19th century Romanticism. Led by guest conductor Peter Oundjian and featuring pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, the ASO program paired the Piano Concerto No. 1 of Johannes Brahms with the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

Benjamin Grosvenor (credit: Decca/Sophie Wright)

Benjamin Grosvenor (credit: Decca/Sophie Wright)

Conductor Peter Oundjian has been a guest on the podium of the ASO every year for the past four years. Prior to that, he skipped a year after appearing in 2014, so you could say he enjoys a kind of “frequent flyer” status with the orchestra. Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has appeared in three consecutive seasons with the orchestra, beginning with his ASO debut in February 2017. By that time, Grosvenor had already been introduced to Atlanta audiences through Spivey Hall. Both Oundjian and Grosvenor came to the ASO this week well-known to local audiences. This time they got to perform together for us.

That’s where Brahms comes in, with his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 as opening work for the evening. Oundjian drew a rather chocolaty sound from the orchestra, churning the dark, warm sonic fondue with his forearms. Grosvenor brought forth clarity and a bit more brightness to the sound with his playing, approaching the more reflective passages with sensitivity and flexibility – such as the unaccompanied chorale-like passage that begins with measure 157 of the long Maestoso first movement that’s echoed by the orchestra, overlaid with piano obbligato, at measure 184.

However, there were too many time when it felt like Oundjian and Grosvenor were simply not in sync with each other, which was disappointing. But we’ll get to hear Grosvenor again next season when he’ll play a solo recital on April 4, 2020 at Spivey Hall, featuring music by Rameau, Schumann and Liszt.

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This early-career concerto – Brahms’ first publicly successful orchestral work – serves as an example of one stream of 19th century Romantic music, that of the Romantic temperament but retaining overall the elements of classical form. At just over 50 minutes duration, it still fits into a broadly classical shape for a concerto: sonata form for the first movement, a slow middle movement in ternary form, and and an energetic rondo for the closing movement. The cadenza for the soloist, however, appears in the final movement rather than the first.

Brahms is rightfully tagged as the successor to Beethoven, as least the latter’s middle-period aesthetic. That final Rondo movement, even with all of its Hungarian character of its principal theme, bears many similarities to the formal manner of the Rondo of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Again, it demonstrates  a Romantic temperament expressed in a broadly classical form, a path which Brahms would exemplify and develop throughout his life.

The other, contrasting stream of Romanticism was represented by Richard Strauss and his Also sprach Zarathustra, less inspired by the ancient Avestanian prophet than by the philosophical novel of the same name by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  In his novel, Nietzsche used the character Zarathustra as a mouthpiece for his own amoralist ideas such as “eternal recurrence,” the “death of God” and the “Übermensch” (“overman” or “super-human”).

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The place of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra music in American popular culture rests entirely on its opening fanfare, thanks its iconic use in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke.

There is where the connection for the average American listener ends. But Kubrick was no dummy when he chose to use the fanfare, given the movie’s themes of eternal recurrence, existentialism and human evolution along with an otherworldly  “presence” in the form of an imposing monolith with sides measurable in a 1:4:9 aspect ratio (the squares of 1, 2 and 3). Surely he knew not only Nietzsche’s philosophy and that his concept of “the eternal recurrence” – the core idea of his Zarathustra story – occurred to Nietzsche while standing by a pyramidal block of stone on the shores of Lake Silvaplana in the Swiss Alps.

That brings us back to Strauss’ music, and the second aesthetic stream taken by 19th-century Romanticism:  the notion of a composition’s formal development based upon directly representing a story, idea, or image purely through music – that is, a “tone poem.” Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra attempts to portray  seven sections from Nietzsche’s novel. For listeners who only know Kubrick’s film, all of that is lost without any extra-musical reference, though images from film itself remain, acting as a different allegorical hook. (After all, what does a Viennese waltz have to do with an ancient middle-eastern prophet? Not much.)*

With or without the extra-musical baggage in tow, Oundjian and the ASO played the music convincingly. Relevant emotions did come across even without specific imagery in mind, particularly at the work’s gossamer end. Strauss concludes his Zarathustra music in a way that leaves the human question unanswered: high strings and winds quietly played a B major chord, while low strings plucked out a few contrary pizzicato C naturals, leaving the listener with a feeling that whatever story has been told, it remains unfinished. ■

* Thanks and credit are due to Ken Meltzer, ASO Insider & Program Annotator , for this particular thought.

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