By Paul Hyde: October 7, 2015
The Greenville Symphony Chamber Orchestra’s annual Oktoberfest concerts naturally spotlight German composers.
But the major work on this year’s Oktoberfest program, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, evokes the radiant landscape of Italy.
“‘Sunny’ is a good word for the piece,” said David Gross, the Furman University music professor who’ll be the featured soloist in the work.
Notable for its charm and high spirits, the concerto was begun by Brahms in 1878 following the composer’s pleasant sojourn in Italy.
Also on the program for the three concerts, Oct. 16-18, will be Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, a work that clings to the classicism of Joseph Haydn while also hinting at the rafter-rattling drama of the composer’s later works.
Closing the program, with conductor Edvard Tchivzhel on the podium, will be Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture.” Tchivzhel noted that Brahms created the popular work out of student drinking songs, which provide an ideal prelude to the free beer tasting that always follows the Oktoberfest performances.
The familiar concluding theme of the “Academic Festival Overture” is a “hymn to youth and the joy of life,” Tchivzhel said. “It will be a natural invitation to our beer party.”
The complimentary post-concert beer is provided by Thomas Creek Brewery.
Breaking the rules
Brahms broke all the rules in his monumental Piano Concerto No. 2, one of the longest concertos (50 minutes) in the standard concert repertoire.
Brahms wrote the work in four expansive movements rather than the traditional three.
He also front-loaded the musical drama, choosing to end the piece, sans trumpet and timpani, with a genial send-off.
“Usually a composer will let it rip in the last movement,” Gross said. “But this last movement is totally jovial. It has a grace to it that is pretty unusual for a finale of a concerto.”
As another indication of the influence of Italy on the work, the concerto’s most prominent style marking is “dolce” — sweetly. The song-like theme for solo cello in the third movement perhaps best reflects that sentiment.
The first and particularly second (scherzo) movements of the piece are the most musically intense.
“The second movement has a raw energy that you don’t find anywhere else in the concerto,” Gross said.
The concerto famously includes many passages to challenge a virtuoso’s technique, though the work is not flashy or showy. Brahms’ passion is expressed through formal restraint.
“It’s a huge piece and as much as I love it, it’s also scary to play,” Gross said. “To stay highly focused for that long is very difficult.”
Brahms composed the Second Concerto at the height of his powers, after he had written many of his greatest works, including the first two symphonies, the “German Requiem” and his Violin Concerto
Gross, born and raised in Berlin, has been a regular guest performer in concert halls throughout the United States and Germany.
Gross, who has performed with the Greenville Symphony Chamber Orchestra several times in the past, called Brahms’ Second Concerto one of his favorite works.
“Ever since my adolescent years, this concerto and Brahms’ First Concerto have been up there at the top of my favorites list,” he said.
Tchivzhel, the Greenville Symphony’s conductor and music director, said he put Brahms’ Second Concerto on the Oktoberfest program after receiving requests from concert-goers.
“I was asked by several people from our audience over many years to perform this piece,” Tchivzhel said.
Gross played the concerto with orchestras in Georgia and Massachusetts in, respectively, 2008 and 2010.
Every time Gross returns to the concerto, he discovers new things. He marvels at how Brahms’ themes grows organically out of previous material.
“With great music, there are so many subtleties,” Gross said. “It never gets old.”
The Oktoberfest concerts are presented by The Greenville News.
For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.
YOU CAN GO
What: Greenville Symphony Chamber Orchestra’s “Oktoberfest,” presented by The Greenville News
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Oct. 16-17; also 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18
Where: Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre
Information: 864-467-3000 or www.peacecenter.org