Symphony performs Brahms, Tchaikovsky


It was a dark and icy evening when the Central Ohio Symphony performed its Nov. 19 concert. A layer of snow had to be wiped off the cars later that night. But entering Gray Chapel inside University Hall on the OWU campus felt like a warm embrace. It was a familiar and comfortable place, and there was light and pleasant company. The musicians and the audience formed a like-minded community where all political, religious, and cultural divisions were suspended.

On the program were three major works: The Symphony No. 4 by Johannes Brahms and, after a brief intermission, the orchestral version of “Pulse” by Brian Raphael Nabors and the Violin Concerto by Peter I. Tchaikovsky, with Aisha Syed Castro as a soloist. Following her fabulous performance, she graciously added a brief encore.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote four symphonies. The last one was first performed in 1885, with Brahms himself conducting. It begins and ends in E minor and has a fateful demeanor throughout. The main motif is introduced right off the bat and repeated, in endless variations and instrumentations, not only in the first movement but throughout the symphony. It serves as a unifying theme for the entire work. The descending tune starts out serenely and melodiously, but at several junctures it is repeated forcefully and loudly, with trumpets and trombones blaring dramatically. Perhaps the term “repeated” is misleading. Brahms is a master of variations and often changes and even disguises his motifs. Close listening is a must. Brahms was heavily influenced by the formidable and intimidating legacy of Beethoven, but there is no question that the fourth symphony is a major work that has stood the test of time. Under the steely baton of Jaime Morales-Matos the orchestra delivered a convincing rendition that was the result of the maestro’s vision of the work as well as long hours of hard rehearsal.

Brian Raphael Nabors (born in 1991) is a prolific African-American composer who is much in demand these days. He is at home in a wide variety of genre-crossing musical styles, including the classical canon, church music, the jazz scene, and film music. “Pulse” was premiered in 2017 for a small chamber ensemble, with single instruments for each part. Eventually, however, the work ballooned into a full-fledged orchestral work. Much is packed into the rhapsodic piece. It consists of dozens of distinct vignettes or “episodes,” each with a unique pulse, tune, rhythm, and instrumentation. The work begins quite animated and is reminiscent of the cacophonic voices of a modern metropolis. The soundscape is almost overwhelming. Some parts are straight, traditional, and harmonious, but other portions are queer, ghostly, and otherworldly – the eerie effect of vibraphones or the striking of piano strings directly. Needless to say, several percussion instruments were also added to give the work additional heft and a tropical, exotic sheen. The only thing missing was a theremin… However, “Pulse” ends surprisingly subdued and meditatively.

Nabors has commented that every living thing on Earth has its own innate pulse. However, in this day and age of mass shootings this reviewer cannot dismiss another interpretation. It does not contradict what the composer says, but it may add additional significance. This reviewer cannot help but think of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, during which fifty people died. Is Nabors’ piece perhaps a sort of requiem that pays homage to the deceased? They all had their individual “pulses” before their lives were violently extinguished. It would help explain the mournful and melancholy ending of the work, which simply fades away in peace and quiet.

Young violinist Aisha Syed Castro (born in 1989) was originally scheduled to perform Max Bruch’s lovely Violin Concerto No. 1, but Music Director Morales-Matos honored her request to perform the Violin Concerto by Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) instead. The soloist is a musician of prodigious talent. Born in the Dominican Republic to a father of Indian and Pakistani origin and a Dominican mother, she was a child prodigy who publicly performed Bruch’s famous violin concerto in G minor at age eleven. She later studied in England at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Music. She has performed around the world. This was, however, her first visit to Ohio. Her repertoire includes not only the traditional violin concertos by the Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch, Paganini, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and other GOATs of classical music. She has also premiered violin works by various contemporary composers. She holds a special affinity for the Hispanic cultures of Spain and Latin America, including Albéniz and Granados, and is not beyond featuring popular composers such as Leonard Bernstein either. She and her family are now based in Florida.

Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto was first performed in Vienna in 1881. The original premiere two years earlier was cancelled after soloist Leopold Auer withdrew, calling the work too difficult. It is indeed a concerto that poses a challenge to even the best violinists in the world. It is both technically difficult and physically exhausting, due to the almost non-stop action of the soloist. The second and third movements are played “attacca,” meaning there is no break between them. For Aisha Syed Castro, who has performed the work many times, the violin concerto posed no problem whatsoever. Her performance was technically brilliant and also emotionally satisfying. She played the more tuneful “cantabile” melodies with great, unpretentious empathy and the febrile, fast-running scales (“vivacissimo”) with unparalleled energy and elegance.

The enraptured audience gave the virtuoso a lengthy standing ovation, and Syed Castro responded with an unscheduled encore – the “Allemande” from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). She performed it with pristine purity and clarity. During the global Covid lockdowns she studied all of Bach’s partitas for violin solo. More than ever before, the soloist is anchored in the bedrock of classical music, giving her a solid foundation on which to build and expand her already accomplished international career.

There were no speeches this time around, but the concert program indicates that the performance was supported by the Ohio Arts Council, the PNC Arts Alive project, the City of Delaware, and Ohio Wesleyan University. It is clear that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) continues to be an aspirational tenet of the Symphony. For example, there is now gender parity within the orchestra itself. It is also increasingly necessary to procure outside grants because ticket sales alone cannot keep the Symphony afloat. The concert was recorded by OWU videographer Elaine Chun and is available on the Symphony‘s website (see below).

The annual Holiday Concert by the Symphony is practically around the corner. It is a fun event for the entire family, and it’s free for children with a valid library card! There will be traditional Christmas medleys and popular classical pieces. Local soprano Angel Tyler will once again perform and lead the audience in a sing-along. In addition, Brian McCoy is a featured soloist in a world premiere of Westerville composer Ken McCaw. He will play the Irish uilleann pipes, which are similar to the Scottish bagpipes. The two identical concerts will take place Sunday, Dec. 11 (at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.) in Gray Chapel University Hall on the OWU campus (61 S. Sandusky St.). For tickets, go to or visit the Symphony’s office at 24 E. Winter St. in downtown Delaware.

By Thomas K. Wolber

Contributing columnist

Local resident Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., taught foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University for over 30 years. He is now retired. Wolber has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email address is [email protected].

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