If it be heresy to suggest that Roger Sessions' rather rigorously atonal Concerto for Orchestra, which had its Washington premiere at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night when it was played by the Boston Symphony, sounds like Brahms, then so be it.
The work received a Pulitzer Prize this year, a belated recognition of Sessions, an 86-year-old American e'minence grise in music, whose name is more familiar than his often difficult, dense harmonic language.
The analogy to Brahms lies in the work's non-harmonic dimensions. The un-Brahmsian theme is a tone row stated by the first violins at the offset and fairly strictly adhered to throughout. It is the strictness of the adherence that suggests Brahms -- plus the orchestration, plus the commitment to tightly organized units. Sessions' ability to almost constantly shift metrics without losing the pulse or the lyric line is just about as close to Brahms as you can get. Consider the Haydn Variations or the passacaglia of the Fourth Symphony. And the way he moves from what he calls a "festive" finale into a rather grave ending within a single measure is really remarkable craftsmanship.
Whether the new work goes beyond brilliant craftsmanship into expressive depths is difficult for the listener to discern; everything is moving too fast. But one gets the feeling that the elderly Sessions is reaching for a greater degree of emotional accessability.
The precedent for this Boston Symphony commission is inescapable, because it was 40 years ago that the ensemble's music director, Serge Koussevitsky, asked Bela Bartok to write such a Concerto for Orchestra, producing what for Bartok was a shift toward accessibility that became one of the musical landmarks of the century.
Logically, Boston Symphony music director Seiji Ozawa followed the Brahmsian Sessions work with some Brahms, the Second Symphony. It was a leisurely reading, in which the virtuoso players were encouraged to follow their rhapsodic muses in terms of phrasing and tone. It could have been a mess, and, in fact, it wasn't the neatest performance you might hear. But it was beautiful.