Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra showcasing "Brahms and Friends"
Johannes Brahms gets top billing in the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra’s “Brahms and Friends” mainstage concert on Saturday at the Michigan Theater. But it’s fair to wager that the audience is turning out as much for Anton Nel, the piano soloist in the Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, as for the Brahms concerto itself.
That’s not to slight this concerto, one of the most difficult and beloved in the repertoire, and a test of any pianist’s — or orchestra’s — mettle. Nor is it to slight the appeal of the evening’s other repertoire.
The concert offers a rare chance to hear Prokofiev’s “Overture on Hebrew Themes,” which the composer orchestrated some 15 years after composing it as a sextet (string quartet plus piano and clarinet) for former conservatory friends who had emigrated to the United States. And it pairs the work with Bizet’s light and lovely Symphony in C — which languished in the vaults of the Paris Conservatoire from 1855 (when he wrote it as a 17-year-old for his entrance exam), until 1933, when it was happily rediscovered.
But a chance to hear Nel, a pianist of international standing who was a member of the U-M faculty before he decamped for the University of Texas at Austin in 2000, is never to be passed up. Maybe that’s why the A2SO has invited him back so frequently: Saturday marks his sixth appearance with the orchestra and gives him a chance to play the “other” Brahms concerto with the A2SO.
The second Brahms concerto, said A2SO conductor and music director Arie Lipsky, “requires a special pianist.” And Nel is that musician for sure, Lipsky said in a recent phone call.
“Anton has what it requires,” he said. “He has the strength physically, the vision for the entire piece, the tender expression, and the ability to sound at times like he has 20 fingers.”
Nel, a superb technician with a broad poetic streak, has a huge concerto repertoire. (He also has phenomenal recall: When he was at U-M, he was tapped, just hours before a Hill Auditorium concert by the Cleveland Orchestra, to substitute for a snowbound Emanuel Ax in the Brahms First Concerto. Ax made it out of New York after all, but the Cleveland invited Nel to play with them the next season.)
But among all the concertos he plays, the Brahms concertos hold a special place in his heart.
“This may seem like a trivial thing to say,” he wrote in an e-mail message last week, “but I LOVE to play the Brahms Concertos. Both (I've played the D Minor in Ann Arbor as well) are like symphonies for orchestra with piano; the second concerto even more so than the first since it has four movements and really does resemble a symphony. Playing it feels like making chamber music on a very grand scale — to me, even though the piano part is extraordinarily difficult, I don't see (nor play) this as a virtuoso concerto, which it can sometimes turn into in the wrong hands!”
Nel, who has played the Brahms Second since he was 19, he said, offered his own guide to it in his e-mail.
He wrote: “The music in it is sublime! As you would expect with Brahms the material is beautifully worked out. He is, after all, a Romanticist with firm roots in the Classical period. The massive first movement (the opening horn call answered by the piano is an unforgettably original touch) is followed by what Brahms called "a tiny wisp of a scherzo" (very sarcastically since it's extremely taxing). The heart of the concerto for me is the beautiful third movement with its stirring cello solo, and the amazing F-sharp major section in the middle of it (the main them of this movement is closely related to Brahms' song "Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer," "My slumber grows ever more peaceful"). The last movement's texture is lightened by his omitting the trumpet and timpani parts. Here there are hints to some of his "Gypsy" writing — similar to what you would find in the Hungarian Dances.”
The cello solo Nel mentions is also a key moment for conductor Lipsky, who is also a professional cellist.
“I’ve played the big cello solo 10 or 20 times in my career, and I’m not sure whether conducting the concerto, which I’ll be doing for the first time, will be as much fun as playing that solo,” he said. “It’s the dream of every principal cellist. In this case, I’m a little jealous of our principal, Sarah Cleveland.”
In that, he has good company in Nel, who will be listening with a touch of envy, too, as the Cleveland intones that solo.
“I know what Arie means,” Nel wrote. “Whenever I hear anything like that, I so want to play it! Alas, I never studied a string instrument ...”
Watch video of Music Director Arie Lipsky and Executive Director Mary Steffek Blaske discussing the concert program:
PREVIEW "Brahms and Friends" Who: The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra What: Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes, Bizet's Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 with Anton Nel. When: Saturday, 8 p.m. Pre-concert lecture for ticket holders, 7 p.m. Where: The Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St. How Much: $6-$49, through the A2SO, 734-994-4801, and at the A2SO web site.
Susan Isaacs Nisbett is a free-lance writer who covers classical music and dance for AnnArbor.com.