You don't expect a raucous roar from an audience after hearing a symphony from gruff old grumpy Johannes Brahms, but that's exactly what happened Friday night at the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra's concert.
And it's not as if Brahms' Second Symphony was an unknown article. The Philharmonic played it in 2006, and it was well received then, too. But I noticed such different things about the work this time. Under conductor Scott Terrell, it had sinew and muscle and strength of will that penetrated the whole work.
Even better, it was so very gemütlich — cozy as a bear hug. That was symbolized by the first time I've ever heard of a guest violin soloist — Arnaud Sussmann, he of a burgeoning international career — after having finished with his own piece, playing in the back of the second violin section later in the same concert.
It was just that kind of gemütlichkeit — coziness — in music-making that already had characterized Sussmann and his new friends in their turn at the Max Bruch First Violin Concerto. My concert partner said that she smiled through the entire performance, just as I was about to grouse that there wasn't a lot of angst in his interpretation. It was true that Sussmann never strained for effect; in fact, he was rock-steady, and he had a great time.
And the orchestra sounded even better in Bruch than in the Brahms — very secure. That comes from a conductor who is both precise and a vivid communicator.
The Brahms symphony was the first über-Romantic work that the Philharmonic has played this year. And the orchestra was ready. Brahms' melodies might be cozy, but every single time, tendrils start growing out of them like snakes out of Medusa's head. What continues to be impressive is Terrell's ability to make a clear separation of snarling, interweaving textures. That goes for rhythms, too, in accents that power the whole sound.
One of the friendliest gestures of the night was during the applause at the end, when Terrell's first acknowledgement was to the cello section. I thought that although a bit too careful at times, the section had a mature, unified sound worthy of special admiration.
For me, next up would be David Elliott and the French horns. You cannot be a wilting flower and play that instrument, arguably the most difficult in the orchestra. Elliott was a leader, the only solo leader that Brahms allows in this work, but his sound blended with the strings beautifully.
Perhaps the best news of the concert came from its opener: only the second performance in the world of New York City composer Robert Beaser's Folk Songs. Thanks to the first-ever grant to the Lexington orchestra from MetLife Foundation, Beaser, chairman of the composition department at Juilliard Music School, was in Lexington this week to present his work to the community.
So often, a modern classical composer has a work performed and it's "one and done." Not so with this work, I predict. Rarely do I hear a work so fresh that as soon as I hear it, I want to hear it again right away. It skittered out of one's understanding almost constantly, but the sound values were keenly inviting.
At the pre-concert interchange, Beaser explained rather reluctantly about one movement's origin in the loss of a friend in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. At the end of the movement, I heard simultaneously a solo cello soul in mourning and a violin/harp spirit flying free.
That kind of mosaic was usually expressed in exultant ways — in the barn dance of the last movement, for example. I got the sense that everybody in that barn got all of their vastly varied moods captured. Even the gruff solo string bass (of Victor Dome) got frisky.