Opening their series of three concerts at Carnegie Hall this year, 37-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel led the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in an all-Brahms program consisting of the Academic Festival Overture, the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, and the First Symphony where the orchestra's characteristic finesse was on full display.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall © Chris Lee
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

The Academic Festival Overture, written in 1880 as a musical "thank you" to the University of Breslau for awarding Brahms with an honorary doctorate in philosophy, betrays its seriousness with a medley of frivolous and lighthearted student drinking songs. (The academics in the audience at the university première in 1881 received it with a mix of chagrin and delight.) Thus the “academic” in the title refers not to the strictness of the work’s musical structure but to the subject matter, namely, students enjoying themselves. The orchestra performed the work with its characteristic finesse, appropriately conveying the humor of the piece. Blend was compromised at times, most notably in the overpowering of the strings’ thirty-second note acrobatics by the jubilant brass in the final few bars of the piece, but overall the piece was performed well.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn consist of a brief statement of the St Antoni Chorale, eight variations on it, and a finale to close. The work was premiered by the VPO (under Brahms’ baton) almost 145 years ago. Despite having undergone several generations of musicians since the original première, the orchestra played it as if they knew the piece just as intimately. As many of the variations involve repetitions of thematic material or even just simple repeats, it takes some skill to accentuate the differences between each iteration, and this was done masterfully. As in the Academic Festival Overture, blend was upset occasionally, as in the overpowering of the double bass pizzicati in the second variation or the drowning out of the flutes’ sixteenth note figurations in the third, but it was overall a fine performance. Several moments shone especially, including the accentuated sforzando Neapolitan harmonies in the fourth variation and the rapid horn lines in the seventh variation. The fortissimo finish brought the work to a satisfying close. 

Eduard Hanslick’s review of Brahms’ First Symphony quips “Seldom if ever has the entire musical world awaited a composer’s first symphony with such intense anticipation”. Completing the work at age 43, Brahms claimed to have toiled over the symphony for 21 years, immobilized by the shadow of Beethoven. And indeed it does not disappoint – the portentous C minor introduction sets the stage for a long dramatic narrative that unfolds over the rest of the symphony, resolving in a blaze of C major in the finale. 

Conducting without a score, Dudamel set at a brisk tempo for the first movement, imbuing the sharply dissonant harmonies with an additional sense of urgency. The orchestra responded well, accentuating the climaxes of each phrase appropriately. The movement ended as somberly as it had begun, (correctly) not conveying a sense of final closure despite the modulation to C major.

The second movement featured memorable solos from the principal clarinet and oboe as well as the concertmaster. It proceeded quickly to the third movement, which also seemed to elapse rather quickly under the orchestra's skilled execution. The pizzicati in the lower strings in both the third and fourth movements were especially memorable, propelling the music forward powerfully. The performance of the famous theme in the fourth movement often compared to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme was as delightful as expected, and the remainder of the movement was equally lush. The ending was loud and blazing, but it felt as if a volume knob had been turned up suddenly rather than gradually. Despite a nearly flawless performance technically, the latent narrative arc of the symphony could have been brought much more to the forefront. Two encores, Bernstein's Waltz from Divertimento for Orchestra and Josef Strauss' Winterlust, finished off the evening's performance,