Due to the strike by CSO musicians, this program has been canceled. Patrons may exchange their tickets for another upcoming Symphony Center performance, donate their tickets to the CSO or receive a refund. Please contact Patron Services by phone at (312) 294-3000 or by email.
For many in classical music, Beethoven or Bach lead the list of the genre’s “Three Bs.” For pianist Emanuel Ax, however, the killer B remains Brahms.
“I’m a Brahms fanatic,” Ax said. “When I was growing up, at age 14 or so, I fell completely in love with the Second Piano Concerto. I absolutely wore out two LPs of it, I loved it so much. Why Brahms? How can you explain what you’re in love with? Certainly it’s obvious that he’s one of the great, great composers. But why particularly? That’s hard to explain. That’s one of the nice things about music; you can’t put it into words.” (Ax will perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fabien Gabel in concerts April 18-20 and 23.)
He’s so devoted to the composer’s artistry that a few years ago, he launched the Brahms Project. Working with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cal Performances, Carnegie Hall and the CSO’s Symphony Center Presents, Ax invited several contemporary composers to create pieces to be paired with Brahms’ timeless music.
Commissioning works from four contemporary composers was especially appropriate. One of Brahms’ best friends was the legendary violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, whose motto was “Frei aber einsam” (“Free but lonely”). In 1853, Brahms and friends Robert Schumann and Albert Dietrich collaborated on a new work for Joachim that became known as the “F-A-E” Violin Sonata because it incorporated those three notes in various combinations.
As the story goes, Brahms, echoing Joachim, created his own personal motto, “Frei aber froh” (“Free but happy”). (That three-note F-A-F motif is noticeably present in Brahms’ Third Symphony.) Ax suggested that the commissioned composers (Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, Brett Dean and Anders Hillborg) keep the F-A-F idea in mind when composing their pieces for the Brahms Project.
The story that Brahms modeled his F-A-F theme on Joachim’s personal motto has long been part of classical music lore. But a few scholars have questioned the whole idea. There’s no direct evidence from either Brahms or Joachim, they argue, that supports the claim. The tale, told in highly flowery language, turns up only in an early Brahms biography by Max Kalbeck.
Ax wasn’t particularly concerned that his Brahms Project might be based on a fictional anecdote. “I don’t really care,’’ he said serenely. “I think it might be fiction. I’m happy to believe in it, especially since I think the Third Symphony starts with that. But the music is the thing; if it’s good music, then whether the story’s true or not doesn’t make any difference. F-A-F is just a way to overtly connect to something.”
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.