Alas, lore is no match for life, as I was again reminded at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night.
My de facto plus-one, with whom I’d recently celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, had just vamoosed for a six-month research fellowship overseas. I needed two things: a seat where I wouldn’t disturb anyone with my sniffling, and a performance to lift my spirits back to where an unobstructed critical view is even attainable. Violinist Hilary Hahn and the National Symphony Orchestra delivered the latter, in D major.
In preparation for the evening, I’d spent the week listening to a 1978 recording of Itzhak Perlman playing Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major (Op. 77) with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, and sure enough, it’s precisely the kind of Brahms that can replace whatever emotional doldrums you may be in with a state of pure, mind-clearing awe. In his 1877 book taxonomy of musical keys, “The Elements of the Beautiful in Music,” Austrian pianist Ernst Pauer characterized D major as expressing “majesty, grandeur, and pomp,” perfectly suited to pieces “in which stateliness is the prevailing feature.”
And certainly this concerto — completed one year later in 1878 — fits Pauer’s description: It’s got oodles of pomp, it’s grand, it’s majestic and it’s impossible to conduct without looking like an angry parent at a school board meeting — lots of fist-clenching and stern pointing.
And its violin part, composed by Brahms to fully engage the virtuosity of his friend Joseph Joachim, leaves ample room for displays of dexterity and technical fireworks, and not a lot of room for me to feel sorry for myself and cry into my mask all night.
What I didn’t factor in was what Hahn would do with it.
When last I saw Hahn on the Kennedy Center stage, she was there for Midori, who in June was presented a series of musical tributes as part of the Kennedy Center Honors, including Hahn’s smoldering account of the third movement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade.”
And just as she did with the Bernstein — a piece which often leaves me a touch cold — Hahn found ways to temper feats of acrobatic virtuosity with stretches of extreme vulnerability. This is a concerto that in some hands (i.e. Perlman’s) can sound superhuman; in Hahn’s it becomes super human.
Hahn took flight from her entrance and scarcely relented, delivering tension one moment, tenderness the next. Her cadenza toward the close of the first movement was a feat of control and abandon, a stunning balance of the explosive and expressive — especially its soft landing.
She played the aching adagio of the second movement with intensity and lyricism, to which principal oboist Nicholas Stovall (for whom some of the concerto’s finest melodies were reserved) and the entire wind section imparted a sublime warmth. (Pauer claimed the key of this movement, F major, is associated with “a mournful, but not a deeply sorrowful feeling.” He did not warn that it would reduce me to a puddle.)
With barely a pause, Hahn launched into and promptly owned the exuberant third movement, spinning its rhapsodic dance rhythms with force, finesse and, once again, humanity.
In any concerto, the orchestra is responsible for painting the landscape over which a soloist can soar, and maestro Noseda — whose love of the Violin Concerto was made clear by his physical embrace of it — guided the orchestra through bold surges of color and hushed shadings with an uncanny mix of elegance and gusto.
After a trio of standing ovations, Hahn returned for an encore of Bach’s Partita No 2 in D Minor (BWV 1004), rendering it slow and mournful, but elastic and electric.
(Hahn returns to the Kennedy Center on March 29, joining cellist Seth Parker Woods and pianist Andreas Haefliger for a program of Kodály, Beethoven and composer-in-residence Carlos Simon.)
Post-intermission, I learned that a “Welcome back” from Noseda is still cause for extended applause. More important, I learned that I’ll go to great lengths to hear Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor performed again.
In 2009, a vast trove of Price’s unpublished music was discovered in what once was her summer home in a small town outside of Chicago. While this Third Symphony wasn’t among the belatedly recovered fantasies, concertos and unfinished Fourth found therein, it still bears a brassy, untouched, artifactual glow. And experiencing it now, some 81 years after its premiere in Detroit, the music feels pulled taut between nostalgia and ambition, looking back and dreaming forward.
It’s an exciting, kinetic, deeply moving work with intoxicating twists, rhythmic feints and playful orchestration. But it’s also a dexterous blend of musical vernaculars — i.e. I wasn’t the only one bringing some blues to the concert hall.
One of the most exciting things about hearing Price’s music springs directly from one of the more tragic things about it. Price’s decades-long exclusion from the canon and concert halls of American classical music is and was a function of the twofold bias faced by Black women in every sector of American life; and it’s an error only recently corrected through the work of musicologists such as Samantha Ege and the late Rae Linda Brown. But this deferred newness also means that these gorgeous and generously composed works are wide open for interpretation.
This could be cause for caution or an opening for audacity, depending on who’s got the baton. But on Thursday night, Noseda’s hands seemed intent on preserving Price’s deeply personal touch.
In structural terms, the symphony stays mostly faithful to the form it claims (though its scherzo does occupy an unusual position as the finale movement). But in content, the music is a direct reflection of Price’s desire to compose a “cross section of Negro life and psychology as it is today (i.e. 1940), influenced by urban life north of the Mason-Dixon.”
That “urban” element emerges in the music as a cosmopolitan effervescence, a relentless procession of surprises as though one were constantly turning new corners in an unfamiliar city. There’s a bustle and business to the symphony’s textures: sometimes it’s the slow creep of sunrise over a row of buildings; sometimes it’s the rising and falling din of traffic; sometimes it’s a pastiche of styles — music spilling onto the streets from countless windows.
It’s an immediately American-sounding work that also manages to sound unlike anything else from the period — especially so in its third movement, a “Juba” based on the traditional dance brought to the States by West Africans sold into slavery.
Drums were prohibited among enslaved people — so as to prevent the exchange of coded messages. And so the Juba (or giouba), and its reliance on intricate rhythmic claps, slaps and stomps, were thrust into a new context and formed the foundation of a new tradition. (One which today can be observed in contemporary step crews.)
Price’s choice to place the Juba where the minuet might normally go is no casual gesture nor mean feat — she was intent and deliberate about her incorporation of Black musical traditions into classical forms — from blues to spirituals to the dances that preserved the bonds of community within the bondage of slavery.
In 2021, the effect is a symphony that feels both long overdue and profoundly on time; that hangs around in your head for hours after its shocking climax. And, if you’re stuck with a feeling like something’s missing, it can fill the gap with a little helping of hope for the future.
“Hilary Hahn Plays Brahms’s Violin Concerto” repeats at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, Oct. 2. Tickets at kennedy-center.org.