Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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Toledo Symphony's 2nd, final Brahms Project concert proves even better than the wonderful first



Last night's second and final concert in the Toledo Symphony's Brahms Project proved several things about the orchestra, its principal conductor Stefan Sanderling, piano soloist Kirill Gerstein, and, mostly, about the redemption maturity bestows on composers.

About the orchestra: it became clear early in the evening that learning double the music for a pair of weekend concerts – not the norm – is more than doable for these busy musicians. It is perhaps a shot in the arm.

Was it adrenaline tempered by a Saturday rest that allowed Toledo's classical band to play Schubert's Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished" with so much brio, sensitivity, and nuance? Whatever, the Saturday performance outdid Friday's effort – and on Friday the playing was wonderful.

Perhaps it was Sanderling, finally recovered from an unpleasant waltz with a virus that started last weekend. He definitely seemed more animated – he even smiled several times.

Whatever, the Schubert was sublime.

The work it followed, Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, a quid pro quo composition written after the composer was given an honorary degree by the University of Breslau, got a measured if uninspiring reading.

I much preferred the Friday opener: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which the TSO knocked out of the hall. (About that piece, you could truly say, "They came to play music.")

Post intermission came the main focus of these concept concerts: Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2, again with Gerstain as master and commander of the Jon Orser Steinway Grand. (On Friday, the focus was on the first piano concerto, circa the 1850s.)

Oh, my! What a difference a few decades make for a composer, even one as gifted as Brahms.

Gerstein, last week, referenced surgeon and friend of Brahms', Theodor Billroth, who said of the second composition: “Comparing it to the first concerto is like comparing a man as an adult and as a youth: the two are unmistakably the same, yet everything is sturdier, more mature.”

Well, amen to that.

Last night's concerto was bulked up musically, but never short on definition, sensitivity, and inventiveness. The opening horn solo elicited an elegant, eloquent response from the piano and Gerstein was off and running.

His performance style seemed as effortless Saturday as it had on Friday, yet he must have played double the notes in this 50-minute work. Moreover, the complexity of the piano part and the way it interweaves much more organically with the orchestra offered plenty of challenge for the soloist, who seemed fully in charge through all four movements.

The opening section, Allegro non troppo (fast but not too fast) established Brahms' musical virility; Movement 2, Allegro appassionato (I don't need to translate that one) set forth his capacity for emotion.

Still, it was in the third movement, Andante, that the audience heard and witnessed the magic Brahms can create. Opening and closing with the melancholy beauty of principal cellist Martha Reikow's solo, this movement drew Gerstein into its heart and soul, transforming notes into a shared affair of the heart.

The final movement was triumphant, a statement of hope and confidence proclaimed in triumph by soloist and orchestra, with Sanderling as its successful agent.

Such a great idea, this Brahms Project. Next year, the composer to be celebrated will be Chopin.

Stay tuned.

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