Symphonies 1 & 2 open a two-day mini-festival
By Peter Alexander
Last night (July 7), Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra opened a mini-festival of music by Brahms with mostly satisfying performances of the symphonies No. 1 in C minor and 2 in D major.
The mini-festival, titled “Boulder Brahms,” concludes tonight (Friday, July 8) with the two later symphonies, Nos. 3 in F major and 4 in E minor (7:30 p.m., Chautauqua Auditorium). Even more Brahms is on offer next week, when Music Director Laureate Michael Christie returns to Chautauqua for “Bernstein and Brahms,” a concert featuring the Piano Concerto No. 1 D minor with pianist Orion Weiss.
Last night’s performance was marked by an exquisite control of dynamics, with beautiful pianissimos and powerful fortissimos, which is becoming a hallmark of Zeitouni’s performances in Boulder. This was true of both symphonies, but particularly stunning in the Second, which had several passages at a beautiful whisper.
Before the concert began, Zeitouni praised the orchestra for doing “four weeks’ work in four days” with the symphonies. Perhaps that explains why the first three movements of the First Symphony were not fully in the groove. They were unusually ragged for the usually excellent Festival Orchestra, with a few uneven entrances and imprecise intonation. The end of the second movement, with a lovely violin solo from concertmaster Calin Lupanu, was marred by a muffed trumpet entrance.
The finale was another story. The tricky accelerando pizzicati at the beginning were perfectly controlled, creating a great sense of suspense. The famous alp horn theme in the horn section rang out heroically, setting the stage for the Beethovenish allegro theme. Zeitouni’s careful control of tempo and dynamics gave the music all the momentum it needed to forge a powerful ending.
There is a joke that when cheerful, Brahms, known for a melancholy temperament, would sing “The Grave is my Joy.” That does not seem to be Zeitouni’s approach. While very sensitive to surface details, he did not go looking for hidden shadows or probe deeply into the darker moments of the First Symphony, which is marked by Beethoven’s influence.
The sound, particularly in the brass, was very bright and forward, sometimes a little edgy. Considering Zeitouni’s heritage, it would be too easy to say that this is a French rather than German sound—bright, transparent winds and fleeting strings, as opposed to a more blended, dark and brooding quality. This would not be completely inaccurate, but it would not be the whole picture: Zeitouni’s interpretation is consistent and of a piece, a careful rendering of the symphonies as he hears them.
Gallic, Canadian or personal, the sound worked well in the sunnier Second Symphony. The pastoral opening of the first movement was spun out beautifully, with exquisite dynamic control. The players were untroubled by Zeitouni’s rather brisk tempo, never sounding rushed or frantic. The solo flutist gets extra credit for making the lengthy triplet passage near the end of the exposition and the end of the movement sound utterly calm and peaceful.
The two following movements were fully in the groove, with good balance, clear textures and solid intonation. The second was an oasis of Brahmsian repose, and the third was as graziozo (graceful) as Brahms could ask for, with the winds dancing happily along.
The finale showed all the beauties and limitations of the performance. The opening sotto voce strings perfectly set up the orchestral outburst that the CMF program notes compared to Brahms leaping out and shouting “BOO” to the audience. The whole movement rushed by in a delightful romp, untroubled by any bumps or disturbances that might suggest gloomy depths. It was thoroughly enjoyable. It will surprise no-one that it garnered the expected standing ovation.
The wind players deserved the bows that Zeitouni granted them at the end of the program. I have already mentioned the horns, who were excellent throughout, and the flute. The bassoon, all the other woodwinds, and the full trombone choir were all first rate.
The chance to hear all four Brahms symphonies in two nights is a rare and welcome opportunity. As Zeitouni has said, “By listening to them all together, we get in closer contact with him as a man.” For Boulder’s devoted classical audience, that is more than worth a trip to Chautauqua.
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Colorado Music Festival
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, Music Director
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Part 2: Symphonies 3 & 4
7:30 p.m. Friday July 8, Chautauqua Auditorium
Brahms and Bernstein
Michael Christie, conductor, with Orion Weiss, piano
Program including Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 14