The Classical Note: Who Were the Soloists Revealed by a Weekend of Brahms?

As of 2013, the relatively small output of Johannes Brahms remains at the heart of the symphonic repertoire. Last weekend, two of his three concertos and one of his four symphonies accounted for half of the major works performed by the region’s two major orchestras.

Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center, music director Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony opened a four-concert run including appropriately assertive readings of that composer’s Symphony No. 3 and Violin Concerto, with Arabella Steinbacher, a German of Japanese descent, as soloist for the latter. Before intermission (a reversal of the usual strategy of concerto-intermission-symphony), The Symphony provided a showcase for what has become an amazingly fine horn section, lead by principal David Cooper. After intermission, conductor Van Zweden opened the Violin Concerto in a surprisingly aggressive mode, the reason for which became clear when soloist Steinbacher entered with a beautifully muscular—yet soaringly lyrical—tone.  After violin superstar Midori’s polite but lackluster concert two days earlier on the Cliburn series at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, it was nice to remember what a violin can actually do in the hands of a brave artist.

Meanwhile, on Friday night in Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall, pianist Adam Golka joined the Fort Worth Symphony and guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein for Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. Golka received much of his training at Texas Christian University under Jose Feghali, and at just 26-years-old, he has laid the foundation of a major career. The young Polish-American pianist once again demonstrated an impressive combination of intellect and pianistic muscle, this time in the daunting and exhausting technical challenges of this monument of the symphonic repertoire .

Interestingly, both conductors — Van Zweden in Dallas and Weilerstein in Fort Worth –chose to open with early works by twentieth-century titans. Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem of 1941, the opening work on the Dallas Symphony concerts, leans heavily on that composer’s romantic roots, but clearly points to his soon-to-follow operatic and choral innovations. Generally accepted as an anti-war statement, with a middle movement that could almost be regarded as a musical equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica, this work certainly seems worthy of more frequent performances.

In Fort Worth, guest conductor Weilerstein’s choice of Gyorgy Ligeti’s early, Bartokian Romanian Concerto likewise proved engaging. Closing with Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony after the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 provided a broad musical outlook, and Sibelius’ opulent and icy gestures constrasted interestingly with the middle-European late romanticism of Brahms.

Photo: Arabella Steinbacher (Credit: Robert Vano)