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Ahhhh, Bach . . . "The Piano Man."

  • May 25, 2011

A Slightly Askew View of the Oregon Bach Festival.

PIANO MAN! After two consecutive weeks writing about the lives of saints (Joan and Cecilia), it's something of a relief to turn our focus on someone more down to earth, a renowned composer and virtuoso pianist whose haunting melodies still linger in our collective subconscious.

No, not him.

On Wednesday, July 6, OBF will celebrate the music of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) with excerpts of several of his compositions in a recital titled "A Brahms Soiree." A soiree is what the French and other people of sophistication call "an evening gathering, typically in a private house, for conversation or music." Sort of like a hootenanny, but without all the hooting. OBF is staging the soiree in a recreation of the maestro's Vienna salon. A "salon" is a large reception room or a gathering of eminent people. We used to call that "our parents' basement," until they finally figured out the incense. And, we note, "salon" is only one "o" shy of "saloon," which as it turns out would also be a pretty appropriate venue for Brahms. PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE . . . Despite the elevated status of his compositions and the sophistication of his large circle of friends, Brahms was not above catering to the more populist sensibilities of his day. As a boy in Hamburg, he supplemented his family's meager income by playing piano in a number of seedy whorehouses, wherein one could embrace a variety of popular entertainments. In Vienna, he was a regular at the Red Hedgehog tavern. (Norm!) In fact, during his lifetime, his most popular and successful compositions were not his grand, large-scale works, but brief compositions "of popular intent," most notably his 21 "Hungarian Dances." In 1889 he performed his "Hungarian Dance Number 1" for a representative of Thomas Edison, making what is thought to be the first audio recoding of a major composer. (Roll over, Beethoven!) TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS? So how is Brahms holding up today? He's widely regarded on the level of such heavyweights as Bach and Beethoven, even though his lullaby is still putting thousands of people to sleep. Brahms' long and apparently platonic relationship with Clara Wieck was the subject of the 1947 film  "Song of Love." Katherine Hepburn starred as Wieck, wife of Brahms' friend Robert Schumann and a highly accomplished musician in her own right. Brahms was played by Robert Walker, perhaps best known for his role as the unhinged socialite Bruno Antony in Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train." ACROSS THE UNIVERSE! This being a small universe, here's a curious twist: Walker's son, Robert Jr., starred in a 1966 episode of "Star Trek," which is relevant to Brahms only because in a 1989 episode of "Star Trek Next Generation" Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge (the dude with the weird wraparound glasses) attempts to woo a date by showing her a hologram presentation he'd created that includes a segment of a Gypsy violinist playing Brahms' "Hungarian Dance Number 5." The date didn't go so well for Geordi, but considering the episode was set in the year 2366, it does say something about Brahms' staying power. And it also provides a convenient segue to the answer to last week's quiz:

With what well-known "tramp" did Brahms once have a close shave?

Let's cut straight to the answer.

Next week we'll be taking a look at cellist Yo-Yo Ma (June 23), the Portland Cello Project (June 27), the Bach and Britten Cello Suites ( June 27 and 29, July 1) and Salvador Dali's strange, some might say surreal, cello obsession. So be sure to stay tuned for that. And now for this week's quiz:

What notorious career criminal got his start as a cellist?

We won't tell a soul until next week, but you can post your guesses on our Facebook page, where you'll find other contests, some with fabulous prizes. Read All