Central Ohio Symphony: Tragedy Overcome
It is the mission of the Central Ohio Symphony to “engage the community through music”. On April 30, the Orchester symphonique gave another magnificent concert under the direction of its seasoned conductor Jaime Morales-Matos. On the program, two major works by German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and a work by contemporary composer from Ohio Michael Rene Torres.
Brahms’ Tragic Overture (opus 81) was the first. The dynamic piece has three sections, all in the key of D minor. It is a very dramatic centerpiece that plunges into the abyss of human suffering. It is full of torment, turbulence and tears. The composer was tortured by many demons during his life, including chronic melancholy and depression. Much of the music he wrote reflects the struggle between the demonic and the angelic. It is said that Goethe’s drama “Faust” may have been the catalyst for the work. Or maybe it was Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy” (1872) that provided the impetus. Some Brahms scholars have astutely observed that the opening’s most devastating moments are not found in tempestuous, tumultuous conflict, but “in the crushing solitude of terrifying, unearthly silences in what have been called ‘dead places’. “.” There are indeed eerie moments of silence in the overture, captured convincingly by the Symphony.
The next program was “Fall Reverie” by Dr. Michael Rene Torres for B-flat clarinet and string orchestra. The composer, who teaches composition and saxophone at Ohio State University, was present at the concert and briefly presented his work, composed in 2015. It was, he said, inspired by the deep experience of the fall in Ohio. (Torres was born and raised in Florida and didn’t move to Buckeye State until 2008.) Gazing out his office window onto OSU’s leafy campus, the composer — who is also a photographer and painter – watched the deciduous trees turn orange, crimson, and red. As the season draws to a close, it reminds us of our own mortality. The calm piece has an introspective and meditative quality, perhaps even melancholy. The first two movements, ‘Dusk’ and ‘Dawn’, are slow and pensive. Low notes dominate. Like nature itself, work is not rushed. Only the third movement, ‘Midday’, picks up the tempo somewhat and is almost joyous and celebratory in the treble that the clarinet reaches at the end. The soloist was Dr. Nancy Gamso, now retired from a distinguished career teaching woodwinds at Ohio Wesleyan University. Clarinets tend to produce a nasal sound that not everyone finds pleasing, but listening to Gamso the experience was different. His warm, clear sound resonated with the audience. “Fall Reverie” depicts a human looking at nature, accepting it and being affected by it. Like Brahms, Torres wants “to talk about the nature of humanity”. It should be noted, however, that “Fall Reverie” remains an anthropocentric work. It is not nature itself that is the focal point as it would be, say, with John Luther Adams.
The performance of “Fall Reverie” was funded by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). “Play It Again” is a special project designed to give composers’ works a chance for later performance beyond their premieres. Composers are expected to be in residence for such occasions and participate in the discussions. “Play It Again” will be an integral part of future concerts by the Symphony Orchestra. The program is hosted by composer and board member, Dr. Jennifer Jolley.
The majestic Symphony No. 1 (opus 68) by Brahms was the highlight of the evening. This demanding work is also written in a minor key (C minor) and filled with storm and stress. As a young man, Brahms stood in the shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven, who died just a few years before Brahms was born. The pressure to continue his legacy was enormous, and Brahms fought mightily to rise to the occasion. It took more than twenty years for the composer to complete the first symphony (in 1876). And even then he continued to play with it for quite some time before it was finally released. A discerning listener will find many examples where Brahms pays homage to the imposing symphonies of his idol. The most obvious are the references to Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 5 and No. 9. For example, the first movement is introduced by a long sostenuto introduction, reminiscent of the “fate” motif of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and filled with percussive strokes.
The fourth movement introduces the cheerful alphorn motif in C major, which uses only the natural scale (harmonic series). The theme is then taken up and repeated, in various iterations, by other instruments. Centuries ago, elongated alphorns were used as a means of communication over great distances. What message does Brahms send us? Maybe it’s spring triumphing over winter, hope over despair and love over hate. This is a crucial point as the whole symphony begins to shift from pessimism to optimism. It is a life-affirming message of salvation and redemption. Tragedy can be overcome. Life is worth living despite the ever-present misery, cruelty and agony. Brahms himself was overjoyed when the revolutionary idea came to him during a visit to the Austrian Alpine region, and he sent a card to his friend and colleague Clara Schuman to share the exciting news. It may also have been a focal point of Brahms’ life and work and has been compared to the “Ode to Joy” (aka “Ode to Freedom”) theme from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Although Beethoven and Brahms were not nationalists, there may also be a political dimension involved. In 1871, Germany had become a united country for the first time since the Middle Ages, realizing an old dream.
The enthusiastic audience gave the energetic conductor, the solo clarinet and the entire orchestra a well-deserved standing ovation. All had worked hard during rehearsals to achieve perfection. In case you missed the April 30 concert or want to hear it again, it was recorded in its entirety by OWU videographer Elaine Chun and can be viewed on the Orchestra’s website. symphony, www.centralohiosymphony.org.
The Central Ohio Symphony gratefully acknowledges the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, Delaware County, City of Delaware, and Ohio Wesleyan University. Thanks are also due to the musicians and staff of the Symphony Orchestra, subscribers, ticket purchasers, advertisers, donors, sponsors, administrators and volunteers.
The last concert of the Symphony’s 43rd season is Saturday, May 21 (7:30 p.m.). On the program, four very different works: “Iubilo” by contemporary African-American composer Brian Raphael Nabors; the “Trumpet Concerto in E flat major” by 18th century Czech composer Jan/Johann Neruda; the “Trumpet Concerto” by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez (with Pacho Flores as soloist); and Peter Boyer’s ambitious multimedia work “Ellis Island”. Also, let’s not forget the annual 4th of July concert on Monday, July 4 (7:30 p.m.) at Phillips Glen on the OWU campus. It is free and open to the public. Finally, plans are already underway for another exciting season, the Symphony Orchestra’s 44th.
Local resident Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., taught foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University for more than 30 years. He is now retired. Wolber holds an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano and is passionate about classical music. His email address is [email protected]