Palm Beach Symphony’s Masterworks series presents concerts featuring world-renowned soloists. The season opening brought the violinist Sarah Chang to perform Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor (Op. 26). Composed between 1864 and 1867, when Bruch was in his late twenties, the concerto garnered such an enthusiastic reception that he feared it would ensconce itself as his best-known work. His premonition was borne out over his remaining fifty-two years, as it became a standard repertoire piece all over Europe. It has ensured his reputation ever since. The concerto made it to a Palm Beach premiere before the other landmark work on this program, Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major (Op. 73). Indeed, Bruch’s violin concerto even has a local connection. Facing poverty in the economic crisis that followed World War I, the elderly Bruch commissioned agents to sell his autograph copy of the concerto on the American market. They failed to sell it before his death in 1920, but it was eventually bought by the heiress Mary Flagler Cary, a granddaughter of Palm Beach’s Gilded Age founding father Henry M. Flagler, who donated it to the Morgan Library.
Chang threw herself into her performance, sometimes swaying her body to the work’s pulsating rhythms. Bruch and the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim collaborated on the creation of these rhythms. The concerto does not follow the standard form in which a first movement introduces major themes for later recapitulation. Instead, this first movement, notated allegro molto vivace, allows the soloist to indulge in expository solo runs that suggest improvisation. Chang wasted no efforts in demonstrating her virtuosity in these opening minutes before moving on to the piece’s adagio second movement, which requires close harmonization with the orchestra. Chang’s comfort in this concerto should come as no surprise—she played the piece for her successful Juilliard audition on a miniature violin when she was five years old. Chang’s synergy with Schwarz’s masterly conducting in the first movements primed the audience nicely for the excitement of the allegro virtuoso finale, which ends the concerto on an energetic note.
David Diamond’s “Rounds for String Orchestra” also had its Palm Beach Symphony premiere this particular evening. Maestro Schwarz is a great champion of American music, and the pairing of this string piece from 1944 with Bruch’s violin concerto was well considered. Like Bruch and his concerto, Diamond wrote his “Rounds” in his late twenties, and it also became the work for which he is best known despite a creative life that extended over many more decades (he died in 2005) and included eleven symphonies. Diamond composed the piece at the suggestion of the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, who wanted a jauntier sound than standard repertoire fare in the doldrums of World War II: Dimitri told Diamond, “Make me happy.” The “rounds” are, indeed, a traditional “round” song, in which different sections enter on the same theme at different times, in the manner of “Row, row, row your boat.” In Diamond’s idiom, it combines orchestral strings in a glowing exercise of point and counterpoint. It was not without reason that Aaron Copland, who frequently included it in programs he conducted, said he wished he had written it. Palm Beach’s strings were more than adequate for the task, delivering a fluent reading under Maestro Schwarz’s steady hand.
Brahms’s Second is the composer’s jolliest symphony. Clocking in at about forty-five minutes, it is also his shortest. As works of the composer’s maturity—Brahms declared to a friend just before his fortieth birthday that he would never write a symphony and did not complete his first one until he was forty-three—his symphonies can be somewhat melancholy affairs, but the Second is an exception. Brahms put off exploring the genre out of fear of comparison with Beethoven, whom he described as a “giant marching behind” him. Yet his own talent proved so magnificent that he has since joined the small pantheon of great symphonists in the standard repertoire. It was not for want of trying, for Brahms spent fourteen years working on his first symphony. Number two, however, demanded only a pleasant lakeside summer in an Alpine village.
The work rises and falls by the strings, and Schwarz’s crisp, neat reading showed them off to their best advantage. The orchestra’s true strength emerged from its exceptional brass section and its concentration of delightfully round-toned horns. The principal French horn Amber Dean’s playing is a consistent pleasure, and players of her quality should drive programming to take on more of the repertoire’s mightiest symphonies. With horns of this kind, Mahler’s Fifth should plainly be among them.