Central Ohio Symphony: Tragedy overcome


By Thomas K. Wolber - Contributing columnist



It is the Central Ohio Symphony’s mission to “engage the community through music.” On April 30, the Symphony performed another splendid concert under its seasoned conductor Jaime Morales-Matos. On the program were two major works by German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and a work by contemporary Ohio composer Michael Rene Torres.

Brahms’ “Tragic Overture” (opus 81) was first. The dynamic piece has three sections, all in the key of D minor. It is a highly dramatic showpiece that delves into the abyss of human suffering. It is full of torment, turbulence, and tears. The composer was tortured by many demons during the course of his life, including chronic melancholy and depression. Much of the music he wrote is a reflection of the struggle between the demonic and the angelic. It is said that Goethe’s “Faust” drama may have been the catalyst for the work. Or perhaps it was Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy” (1872) that provided the impetus. Some Brahms scholars have astutely observed that the most devastating moments in the overture are not found in tempestuous and tumultuous conflict, but “in the crushing loneliness of terrifying and unearthly silences in what have been called ‘dead places.’” There are indeed eerie moments of silence in the overture, captured convincingly by the Symphony.

Next on the program was Dr. Michael Rene Torres’ “Fall Reverie” for B-flat clarinet and string orchestra. The composer, who teaches composition and saxophone at The Ohio State University, was present at the concert and provided a brief introduction of his work, composed in 2015. It was, he said, inspired by the profound experience of autumn in Ohio. (Torres was born and raised in Florida and did not move to the Buckeye State until 2008.) Looking out of his office window on OSU’s leafy campus, the composer – who is also a photographer and painter – observed the deciduous trees turning orange, crimson, and red. As the season comes to a close, it reminds us of our own mortality. The calm piece has an introspective and meditative, perhaps even melancholy, quality. The first two movements, “Dusk” and “Dawn,” are slow and pensive. Low notes dominate. Like nature itself, the work is in no hurry. Only the third movement, “Midday,” picks up the tempo somewhat and is almost happy and celebratory in the high notes the clarinet reaches in the end. The soloist was Dr. Nancy Gamso, now retired after a distinguished career of teaching woodwinds at Ohio Wesleyan University. Clarinets tend to produce a nasal sound that not everyone finds pleasant, but listening to Gamso the experience was different. Her warm and clear sound resonated with the audience. “Fall Reverie” depicts a human gazing at nature, accepting it, and being affected by it. Like Brahms, Torres wants “to speak to the nature of humanity.” It should be noted, however, that “Fall Reverie” remains an anthropocentric work. It is not nature itself that is the focal point as it would be the case in, let’s say, John Luther Adams.

The performance of “Fall Reverie” was funded by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). “Play It Again” is a special project designed to give composers’ works a chance for subsequent performances beyond their premieres. Composers are expected to be in residence for such occasions and participate in discussions. “Play It Again” will be an ongoing part of the Symphony’s future concerts. The program is curated by composer and board member Dr. Jennifer Jolley.

Brahms’ majestic Symphony No. 1 (opus 68) was the highlight of the evening. That demanding work, too, is written in a minor key (C minor) and filled with storm and stress. As a young man, Brahms stood in the shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven who had died only a few years before Brahms was born. The pressure to continue his legacy was enormous, and Brahms struggled mightily to rise to the occasion. It took the composer more than twenty years to complete the first symphony (in 1876). And even then, he continued to fiddle with it for some more time before it was finally published. An astute listener will find many instances where Brahms pays homage to the towering symphonies of his idol. Most obvious are references to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and No. 9. For example, the first movement is ushered in with a long sostenuto introduction, reminiscent of the “fate” motif in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and replete with pounding percussive blows.

The fourth movement introduces the joyous alphorn motif in C major, which uses the natural scale (harmonic series) only. The theme is then picked up and repeated, in various iterations, by other instruments. Centuries ago, elongated alphorns were used as communication devices over great distances. What message is Brahms sending us? Maybe it is that spring triumphs over winter, hope over despair, and love over hate. This is a pivotal point as the entire symphony begins to shift from pessimism to optimism. It is a life-affirming message of salvation and redemption. Tragedy can be overcome. Life is worth living despite ubiquitous misery, cruelty, and agony. Brahms himself was overjoyed when the breakthrough idea came to him during a visit to Austria’s alpine region, and he sent a card to his friend and colleague Clara Schuman to share the exciting news. It may have been a pivotal point for Brahms’ life and work as well and has been likened to the “Ode to Joy” (aka “Ode to Freedom”) theme of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Although Beethoven and Brahms were not nationalists, there is perhaps also a political dimension involved. In 1871, Germany had become a united country for the first time since the Middle Ages, fulfilling an old dream.

The enthusiastic audience gave the energetic conductor, the clarinet soloist, and the entire orchestra a richly deserved standing ovation. All had worked hard during rehearsals to achieve perfection. In case you missed the April 30 concert or wish to hear it again, it was recorded in its entirety by OWU’s videographer Elaine Chun and can be found on the website of the Symphony, www.centralohiosymphony.org.

The Central Ohio Symphony gratefully acknowledges the support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, Delaware County, the City of Delaware, and Ohio Wesleyan University. Thanks are also due to the Symphony’s musicians and staff, subscribers, ticket purchasers, advertisers, donors, sponsors, trustees, and volunteers.

The last concert of the Symphony’s 43rd season is Saturday, May 21 (7:30 pm). On the program are four very different works: “Iubilo” by contemporary African-American composer Brian Raphael Nabors; the “Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major” by 18th-century Czech composer Jan / Johann Neruda; the “Concerto for Trumpet” by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez (with Pacho Flores as soloist); and Peter Boyer’s ambitious multimedia work “Ellis Island.” Also, let’s not forget the annual Fourth of July concert on Monday, July 4 (7:30 pm) in Phillips Glen on the OWU campus. It is free and open to the public. Lastly, plans are already underway for another exciting season, the Symphony’s 44th.

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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]

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]