The Lansing Symphony Orchestra plays music of Debussy, Brahms and Strauss for the upcoming MasterWorks 5 concert at Wharton Center. WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with Lansing Symphony Music Director Timothy Muffitt about the program, starting with the Brahms Piano Concerto #2.
TIMOTHY MUFFITT: I did a concert with Philippe (Bianconi) last season. And I said, “You know, I’d really like you to come up to Lansing. What would you like to play?” And he mentioned the Brahms Second as one of the possibilities. Brahms has two concertos, and both of them are enormous symphonic statements. These are works that approach the length of a Mahler symphony, really. And the length of a piece of music is not usually something we like to brag about in classical music.
MELISSA BENMARK: But if it’s good…
MUFFITT: But it’s an extraordinary piece of music. And both of his concertos, also, both of Brahms’ concertos, are really, there’s a tight integration between the soloist and the orchestra. And the two function as kind of really one unit. And so, there’s that element that’s really exciting in this concerto. Connection. Where the soloist and the orchestra really work very closely together in the unfolding of the piece.
BENMARK: So it almost perhaps seems less like, this is a showcase for the soloist, as, there’s a musical ideal that all of us are heading toward, and this is what it is.
MUFFITT: That’s exactly right, yes. We, meaning the orchestra, are not window dressing on this, but are very engaged at the core of the piece, I guess. And then there’s the other element that, it’s Brahms. And Brahms is one of those composers that, still, even works of his with which I’m completely familiar, especially the piano music, it never fails to just amaze me with the beauty of it and the purity of it and the warmth and the Brahmsian-ness of it.
BENMARK: You know, I think I know what you’re saying. Because of all the composers, I think—and I don’t know if this is true or not—but I always think that Brahms must have been the kindest, personally. Because it just seems to be there in his music, somehow.
MUFFITT: There is enormous warmth to his music. And a lot of it, you can’t even describe. There aren’t words. You know, whether it was Zappa or Elvis Costello or whoever said that ‘talking about music is like dancing about architecture’ line, Brahms is the perfect example of that. There are qualities in his music that escape description.
We can talk about the technical elements that go into it. The way he voices. How certain lines are assigned in the register. We can talk about his use of harmony. And we can talk about texture in his music. All of which are very technical and dry and don’t begin to add up to the end result, which is just absolutely some of the most extraordinary music ever written. That goes from his Balladen and Intermezzi, the short piano works, to this grand second piano concerto that spans an enormous musical statement.
BENMARK: That seems like a good place to talk about “Death and Transfiguration somehow. We’re getting kind of universal, there.
MUFFITT: Okay, good. Yeah.
BENMARK: Strauss’s tone poem, “Death and Transfiguration,” sounds a little daunting anyway. I suppose anything with ‘death’ in the title gives you a little pause. Tell me your impressions of this piece.
MUFFITT: Sure. Strauss says that he can’t write music without a program. You know, all of his music has some kind of an extramusical source that drives it.
BENMARK: He has a storyline for everything.
MUFFITT: Right. And this piece, I mean, the story really tells it all. The first part of the piece is full of angst and turmoil and tension, and then the ending is uplifting and serene. And that’s a very simple explanation of what happens in the piece. To me, this is one of Strauss’s most transparent works, and perhaps most engaging pieces for an audience.