My wife had to come here for two back-to-back conferences, and I decided to tag along. What's not to tag? The setting is gorgeous, the weather perfect, the company congenial; other than a perceptible absence of oxygen --- I almost collapsed on my run this morning --- there's really nothing for even the most churlish visitor to complain about. Except perhaps the conferences themselves, which apparently concern various questions relating to global warming and international economic policy. Vital, no doubt, of pressing importance for the survival of the human race. But also deadly. I'm keeping my distance, only showing up at mealtimes.
But this morning, while playing hookey, something delightful happened. I was strolling along one of the many bucolic paths around here, minding my own business, and as I passed a big white tent I suddenly heard a richly-scored orchestral passage in B flat major coming from within. I recognized it immediately: Early bars from the opening movement of Brahms second piano concerto. I walked closer, and then sashayed right into the tent itself, which turned out to be the main concert hall of the Aspen Music Festival. Nobody stopped me or even gave me a second glance. I strolled down into the all-but-empty auditorium and grabbed myself a great seat. The superb Russian pianist Yefim Bronfman was rehearsing the concerto with the Aspen Festival Orchestra under the conductor Peter Oundjian, for a concert scheduled to take place tomorrow. I had just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I'm a great fan of rehearsals. It's a pleasure to watch musicians getting down to business without regard for any public impression they may be making, working professionals working seriously at their craft. In this case, since the orchestra in question comprised many student players along with a few more experienced hands, the conductor was primarily and painstakingly attending to issues of ensemble and balance. To hear a familiar piece taken apart like that, as if it were an intricate watch, and then see it examined bit by bit and reassembled, can be an education in the art of listening to as well as the art of making music.
The Brahms second is a great hairy beast of a concerto, but it's a noble beast, maybe the noblest piano concerto in the repertoire. It was fascinating to watch Bronfman wait as his accompaniment was fine-tuned --- collegial, calm, betraying no impatience --- but in a way it was even more interesting to watch him play during the work's most impassioned passages. Every inch the professional (and he's a hefty guy, so there are a lot of inches to this professional), he sat quietly while Oundjian rehearsed the orchestra, sometimes listening, sometimes conferring with the conductor over phrasing, sometimes unconcernedly nodding at acquaintances in the hall (to one couple, presumably old friends, he even blew a kiss). But whenever he played (and he often addressed the keyboard at the last possible moment, off-handedly getting down to it a bare beat before his entrance), he played exquisitely. There was nothing rote about it at all. But there was nothing of a performance about it either. His face betrayed no particular emotion, his body was largely still, whatever effort was required of him was almost entirely invisible. At one point this struck me as almost comical: He was playing the mysterious, haunting, exhilarating re-transition passage that emerges out of the development section, beginning quietly and introspectively and then growing and swelling until it finally, triumphantly ushers in the recapitulation. His playing in this passage was as subtle, as wistful, as stirring as any performance I've ever been privileged to hear. But by the expression on his face, you might have thought he was shining his shoes or washing his dinner dishes.
Oundjian worked a few miracles too. The concerto's slow movement features a prominent solo cello part, and Brahms often has the solo cello accompanied by its fellow low orchestral strings. Brahms' orchestration, in this and many other pieces, has often been criticized as muddy, and while that aspect of it has never especially bothered me, it was clearly bothering Oundjian in these particular third-movement passages. Nevertheless, he didn't treat the difficulties he was having with balance as a flaw in Brahms' orchestration, but rather as a practical problem to be solved. Watching him work, one at a time, with the celli, the violas, and the double basses, in order to achieve a more transparent environment for the solo cello's warm cantabile, constituted an insight into the workaday art of orchestral conducting. The before-and-after was dramatic; he devoted several precious minutes to demonstrating to the double basses how to play their pizzicati in this movement, and while I sensed resentment at this instruction on the part of one of the older players --- of course, it's possible the novelist in me was inventing drama that wasn't really there; as the former first fiddle for the Tokyo String Quartet, Oundjian certainly should enjoy sufficient credibility with his players when it comes to string technique --- the difference in effect was unmistakable.
The Brahms second is a concerto that's been so familiar to me for so many years, I've largely stopped listening to it. But after experiencing today's rehearsal, I can't wait to attend tomorrow's performance.