Review: Orchestra offers lucid Brahms, sparkling beer

Greenville NewsFull Review

By Paul Hyde: October 17, 2015

Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto presents a bear of a challenge to a piano virtuoso’s technique.

Pianist David Gross offered a lucid, nimble account of this expansive, demanding piece Friday night with the Greenville Symphony Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Edvard Tchivzhel.

This annual Oktoberfest program, which will be repeated Sunday afternoon at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre, also included Beethoven’s First Symphony, Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” and, to top it off, complimentary post-show beer in the lobby.

The always-popular Oktoberfest concerts focus on German music. But on Friday, Gross and Tchivzhel emphasized the Italianate spirit of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto — at least so it seemed to these ears.

Tchivzhel’s tempos were characteristically brisk. Gross, a Furman University music professor, brought clarity and a lightness of touch, despite some missed notes, to Brahms’ knotted piano writing. The 40-member chamber ensemble, a lean, able partner in the proceedings, was smaller than the sort of orchestra that usually performs the piece.

This was not solemn, graybeard Brahms but a more summery creation. (The performance reminded a listener that Brahms composed the 1881 concerto after two pleasant trips to Italy.)

Of course, there were tradeoffs: One occasionally longed for the richer, fuller sonority a larger orchestra can bring to this work.

Still, there was ample drama in the first and second movements. Leslie Nash Kilstofte’s cello solo in the serene third movement was eloquent, despite a passing intonation problem. Gross and Tchivzhel made the jaunty last movement really dance.

After intermission, Tchivzhel led a vigorous performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, with the orchestra deftly negotiating the conductor’s speedy tempos.

Tchivzhel’s reading, brash and energetic, emphasized the young romantic Beethoven, then 29, breaking away from the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart. The first movement boasted a forceful vitality, though its tripping passages were crisply rendered. The second movement was a graceful respite. Tchivzhel gave the third and fourth movements an urgent, headlong momentum.

Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” closing the program, benefited from the addition of heavy metal: three trombones and tuba. With other instrumentalists filling out the ranks of Brahms’ sizable orchestration, the ensemble then numbered 50 to 60. Put another way, that amounted to one musician on stage for every three or four audience members.

In the intimate Gunter Theatre, the result was powerful and thrilling.

Brahms’ somewhat irreverent and un-academic overture includes four beer-hall tunes. As Tchivzhel predicted in his introductory remarks, the work served well as a spirited invitation to the complimentary post-show beer, courtesy of Thomas Creek Brewery.