A world premiere and Bronfman’s majestic Brahms open Palm Beach Symphony season in style

By David Fleshler

Yefim Bronfman performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Palm Beach Symphony Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: IndieHouse Films.

The Palm Beach Symphony opened its 50th season in style Sunday at the Kravis Center with a world premiere and a big-name soloist.

Music director Gerard Schwarz led the orchestra in works of Strauss, Brahms and Bright Sheng, a Chinese-American composer who contributed the world premiere.

The new work arose from Sheng’s brush with the contemporary American phenomenon of cancel culture. Sheng, born and educated in Shanghai, studied music in the United States, became a protege of Leonard Bernstein, won commissions from prominent symphony orchestras and joined the faculty of the University of Michigan.

At the university he ran into a storm of criticism from students and outside commentators for showing his class a 1965 film of Shakespeare’s Othello without providing a “trigger-warning” that the actor Laurence Olivier appeared in blackface. Although Sheng would eventually return to the classroom, the 2021 incident generated headlines, with supporters of academic freedom seizing upon it as an example of political correctness run amok.

The episode led to the work performed Sunday, which was co-commissioned by the Palm Beach Symphony as well as two conservative non-profit groups: the Common Sense Society and the Palm Beach Freedom Institute.

“We are thrilled that we could bring Bright’s case to national attention and force his vile persecutors to back down from the same despicable tactics he experienced in his early life in Communist China,” Paul du Quenoy, president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute, said in a 2022 news release announcing the commission. “Along with our friends at the Common Sense Society, we look forward to celebrating the premiere of his overture here in our free state, where “woke” goes to die.”

None of this backstory was mentioned on stage or in the program. Instead, the composer came on stage with conductor Gerard Schwarz and described the work as something of a requiem with a cheerful ending. A program note from Sheng said he had focused on the traumas of 2020-2022 involving Covid, the war in Ukraine and political tensions in the U.S., but that he believed that through all this, humanity would triumph.

Quenoy, a historian and political commentator, also opened Sunday’s concert, having won an auction for the chance to lead the orchestra in the traditional season-opening performance of The Star Spangled Banner.

The new work, Triumph of Humanity, traveled a classic darkness-to-light arc, with darkness taking up what seemed like 90% of the piece. Sheng’s work began in the cellos and basses in lugubrious processions of notes peppered with dissonance. The tones ascend through the string sections, gaining energy and becoming more assertive.

A crisis strikes via loud and aggressive sounds in brass and percussion. Warlike passages break out in the trombones and tuba. Toward the end, the brass instruments move from malevolent to joyful, with big affirmative chords giving the work a hard-won optimistic ending.

The orchestra performed another work by Sheng Sunday as well. Black Swan is an orchestration of Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 118, no. 2 for piano. The orchestration respects the original composer’s work, using the orchestra in a similar manner to that of Brahms. The warmth of oboe-dominated wind passages and richly harmonized strings gave the piece the feel of a slow movement from some lost Brahms symphony.

Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier combines some of the composer’s greatest music and one of the opera world’s most intricate plots. The stage directions for Act 3 exceed a page of dense text, with more directions interspersed throughout (“The man under the trapdoor opens it too soon and appears. Octavian, who sits opposite of him, waves frantically at him.”) There have been various attempts to assemble suites from the opera, and the one performed Sunday was arranged by conductor Schwarz.

The performance came off as somewhat drab, however, not just for the absence of voices but for the lack of sensuality and fizz in the performance of the melodies. Passages intended to evoke the love between Octavian and the Marschallin felt more business-like than romantic. The same went for the magical descending sequence of high chords in winds and other instruments. The Baron Ochs Waltz came off with more charm, but overall the performance stayed earthbound.

In the past few years the Palm Beach Symphony has brought in first-class soloists, and this concert was no exception. The great pianist Yefim Bronfman took the stage to perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. From its stately opening on the piano, they gave this huge work the unhurried sense of breadth it needed, with bursts of passion, drama and edge-of-the-seat intensity.

The orchestra played in a tight, disciplined manner, giving extra bite and force to the long, symphonic tuttis that mark the first movement. Bronfman played with clarity, finesse and power, his fingers thundering across the keyboard at one moment and appearing to float above the keys in feathery arpeggios the next. The orchestra brought pulsing, nervous energy to the Allegro appassionato movement, giving it a well-paced, energetic tone.

The concerto contains one of orchestral music’s great cello solos. Principal cello Claudio Jaffé gave a noble performance, playing with a golden tone, expressive phrasing and a high sense of dignity that elevated both the beginning and end of the movement. Bronfman’s extraordinary control at the piano allowed him to float tones over the hushed melody in woodwinds.

A burst of applause blotted out the delicate opening of the concluding Allegretto, forcing Schwarz and Bronfman to wait for silence to start again. They gave a racy zip to the performance of the movement’s Hungarian theme.

This concerto is one of the longest in the repertory, with four movements, a demanding solo part and a typical performance time of about 50 minutes. Nothing further is expected from any pianist that does a creditable job with it. 

But in response to a standing ovation, Bronfman gave an encore of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, his left hand thundering down the keyboard in the work’s booming bass part, in a weighty and intense performance.

The Palm Beach Symphony’s next concert takes place 7:30 p.m. December 13 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. The program includes Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”), the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with soloist Akiko Suwanai, and the world premiere of Sinfonietta by Gerard Schwarz. palmbeachsymphony.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “A world premiere and Bronfman’s majestic Brahms open Palm Beach Symphony season in style”

  1. Posted Nov 25, 2023 at 5:25 pm by MARYANN GRUIA


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Mon Nov 20, 2023
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