Brian Ahlstrom

Dr. Brian Ahlstrom is a retired neurologist and active music lover. He reviews Johnstown Symphony Orchestra performances for The Tribune-Democrat.

Upon hearing a live performance of Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1 in C Minor,” James Blachly decided to become a musician.

The Johnstown Symphony Orchestra continued its parade-in-review of the ethnic groups that came together to make Johnstown with a program Saturday night called “Made in Brahms-Town” – a tribute to the German and Italian communities and their music.

The second half of the show at the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center featured “Symphony No. 1 in C Minor.”

Maestro Blachly, the JSO’s music director, said the Brahms symphony has great importance for many of the musicians in the orchestra. Concertmaster Maureen Conlon-Gutierrez said she had performed the violin solo many times in auditions for the post of concertmaster, but Saturday brought the first time she performed it with a full orchestra.

This is total music. The audience was invited to project deepest feelings onto the composer’s soundscape, experiencing the music as one might interpret a Rorschach inkblot. Analysis of the music resembles Freudian dream interpretation, with no one correct version, and each passage/symbol having multiple meanings.

Robert Schumann had famously offered well-intentioned but cursed praise to a 20-year-old Brahms in 1853. He is “fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner.” So started an almost 20-year gestation period for this first symphony. Brahms felt he toiled under the shadow of a giant, Beethoven. As the years passed, he reworked the piece over and over, burning the discarded drafts. The result is a magnificent orchestral masterpiece, of such exquisite harmony and composition that professional musicians are left in awe of the craft and skill in his work.

The first and last movements are dark and ominous, with more of direct Beethoven-like turbulence, contrasting with the peaceful second and third movements. The symphony opens with pounding insistent drumming, somehow suggesting emergence from primal chaos into being, struggling to take form. The final movement is perhaps the most familiar, with its intentional homage to Beethoven’s 9th. At the end, the audience experienced that wonderful emotional catharsis, a cleansing of the spirit. I felt the orchestra had paid particular attention to this piece, and it showed in their crisp play and deep grasp of the structures and requirements.

The JSO is coming together, creating a new and unique sound, richer and more profound. A terrible beauty is born.

In the show’s first half, the JSO put a spotlight on Italian opera.

Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla were great supporters of music in Johnstown. They funded the current home of the JSO, the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center (affectionately known by its initials PPAC), the opera gala night, the principal fundraiser for the JSO for over 20 years, and chartered Johnstown community bus trips to the Pittsburgh Opera Sunday matinees. Crown American continues as a leadership sponsor of the JSO.

In honor of the Italian immigrant community and Frank Pasqerilla’s life-long passionate love of opera, the first part of the program was devoted entirely to music from classic Italian opera. The composers (the three G’s – Giacomo, Giuseppe and Giacomo) appear in chronological order, tracing the arc of Italian opera through Romantic (Rossini), classical (Verdi) and verismo (Puccini and Mascagni).

Rossini’s overture to “The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution” started us off with a lively introduction to the adventures of the Factotum of the City (Figaro). The main melody is uncannily reminiscent of Rossini’s own “The Thieving Magpie.” The composer knew a good thing when he saw it, and did not hesitate to recycle material. He retired early to enjoy Tournedos Rossini (filet mignon, pan-fried in butter, served on a crouton topped with a hot slice of fresh whole foie gras, garnished with slices of black truffle and finished with a Madeira demi-glace sauce. You are what you eat.

Next was a brief overture to a neglected Verdi opera “Un giorno di regno,” sometimes translated into English as “King for a day.” This comic opera (opera buffa) tells of the adventures of a French officer who stands in for the Polish King Stanislaus I for one day during the king’s absence, with complex romantic and political intrigues, all ending happily. However, Verdi’s two children and his wife died during the time he composed this work, and it was a flop. After a hiatus of 12 years, Verdi returned to composing with his triumphant “Nabucco.” Maestro Blachly has conducted this short opera before, and the tight execution was clearly a result of his complete mastery of the score, with its playful mélange of royal pomp with silliness.

Verdi’s masterpiece “La Traviata” has a special place in my heart. It was the first opera I ever saw in live performance – as a birthday present from my parents at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I will never forget the initial ballroom scene and brilliant “Brindisi.” In a pre-optrans supertitles era, I understood little of the lyrics, but was swept away by the drama and emotion. Saturday’s piece was a haunting prelude to Act III (Violetta’s death in a garret), characterized by plangent, high-pitched violin with a suggestion of labored, gasping respiration. The strings carried this off marvelously.

Another Traviata anecdote too good to leave out: The Venetian audience heaped scorn on the singer cast as Violetta, as being too old (38) and too round to be playing the role of a young woman dying of the wasting disease of consumption (disseminated tuberculosis). She did manage to win them over with the beauty of her voice, but the audience turned ugly again, displeased with the male singers. Everyone’s a critic.

The introduction to Act 3 of “Madama Butterfly” followed. The music portrays Cio-Cio San’s (Butterfly’s) vigil as she awaits the return of her husband Pinkerton after a three-year absence, eager to be with him again, and share the joy of their infant son. She does not know that he has married an American girl Kate, who volunteers to raise the boy as Pinkerton flees the scene. 

Butterfly commits seppuku by cutting her throat with the same knife her father used to commit seppuku at the Emperor’s orders. Puccini can tear at your heart strings on stage, but this segment was somewhat muddled and unsatisfying.

The last piece prior to intermission was an intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana,” first performed in the fateful year of 1889. This one-act opera is often performed in a double-header with “Pagliacci,” and thus is not given the attention it deserves. Though a duel to the death looms in the next scene, this music is melodic and curiously lyric. The orchestra carried this off quite well.

The next concert, “The Joy of Christmas,” will be at 3 and 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 14 – featuring the JSO, Johnstown Symphony Chorus, Inclined to Sing, Johnstown Symphony Youth Orchestra and Le Dance Academie.

Bring the whole family for a wonderful experience.

Dr. Brian Ahlstrom is a retired neurologist and active music lover. He reviews Johnstown Symphony Orchestra performances for The Tribune-Democrat.

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