Listening to Brahms

by wjw on January 29, 2007

Over the weekend we traveled to Socorro, the Athens of the Southwest, for the Presidential Chamber Music concert. (The president in this case being Daniel Lopez, of New Mexico Tech.) For a college that specializes in science and engineering, Tech has an surpringly large footprint in the world of music.

Before the concert we dropped in on a wine tasting organized by Club Macey, and sampled three French and three Californian wines. The wines themselves were fairly forgettable— indeed, a couple of them would be of interest only if you were intent on getting hammered— but the talk that went along with them was interesting, and the company was pleasant.

For the concert, Bolivian violist Willy Sucre (founder of the Cuarteto Boliviano and veteran of the Helios Quartet) was given carte blanch to create his own ideal ensemble, and so recruited fellow Helios veteran Krysztof Zimowski on violin, Joan Zucker on cello, and the justly famous Awadagin Pratt on piano.

The theater was full, with spectators standing in the aisles and on the wings of the stage. It helped no doubt that the concert was free, but also there were quite a few music-lovers from Albuquerque and Santa Fe in attendance because the concert wasn’t going to be repeated anywhere, any time.

Awadagin Pratt is a tall, cinderblock-shaped black man with dreadlocks to the small of his back and metal-rimmed glasses. He looks and moves like an amiable, middle-aged weightlifter, and he wore a colorful Africanesque shirt. His physical presence is considerable, and the keyboard actually seems a little small for him, like a child’s toy piano.

He struggled throughout the concert to control his sheet music. You’d think he’d have mastered that by now.

The opening number, the Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Op 47 by Schumann, was performed with considerable brio. The audience hooted, hollered, and applauded after every movement. I suspect the high spirits were not unconnected with the earlier wine tasting.

(And by the way, whose idea was it that you’re not supposed to applaud between movements? Other than a stupid person’s, I mean? I am trying to picture the Rolling Stones telling their audience they can’t applaud till intermission. I am trying to picture performers saying, “Shut up— it’s art. I’m not interested in whether you like it or not.”)

After intermission came Brahms’ “Werther” piano quartet. I lack the musical vocabulary to actually explain what happened here, I only know it was extraordinary. The music is weirdly passionate, weirdly involuted, and weirdly complex, and dates from a period in which Brahms’ mentor Schumann was confined to a madhouse and Brahms rushed to the side of Clara Schumann, who he loved but could not approach out of loyalty to Robert. (Got that? Okay.)

Pratt was amazing. He seemed to coil over the keyboard as if trying to possess it, and then at a moment of release would spring upright and throw his head back so that his dreads would fly over his back. He thoroughly owned the music.

Three curtain calls. No encore, damn it.

It was all too intense for the audience to leave right away, so everyone hung around the lobby afterwards and chattered like maniacs. Fortunately everyone we know in Socorro seemed to be there, so there were able to chat merrily away until it was time to walk out into the cold and dark and head for home.

Brian Borchers January 30, 2007 at 3:45 pm

The “no encores” is part of part of chamber music tradition along with “no clapping between movements.” However, these rules are rapidly fading into the past.

20 years ago, when I regularly listened to chamber music in the Boston area no one clapped between movements, and you never got an encore. I remember attending a concert by the Cronus Quartet and being very surprised when they did an encore- it just wasn’t done.

This was a very good concert.

Kelly January 30, 2007 at 8:11 pm

I’ve embarrassed myself several times by accidentally clapping during movements at choral concerts. Heck, I was just listening and paying attention to the music, not studying the program to see where I was allowed to clap.

dubjay January 31, 2007 at 2:57 am

The “no clapping between movements” rule has to be fairly recent. In the 19th century audiences would not only applaud wildly whenever they felt like it— or, worse, boo and throw vegetables— but they would stop the music in the middle and demand to hear choice bits over again.

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