Symphony orchestras have to do a lot to get young audiences in the door, but this is a new, um, angle.
“Are you going to come to our Brahms beard contest? There are going to be strippers.”
In 20 years of covering the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, that’s certainly the most unique pitch I’ve ever received from the public relations department.
The DSO’s Brahms Festival opens Thursday with the first of 14 concerts that include six symphony programs spread over three weeks featuring all the orchestral music written by Johannes Brahms — four symphonies, four concertos, two serenades, three overtures and others. Music director Leonard Slatkin conducts them all, with pianist Helene Grimaud, violinist Baiba Skride and cellist Danjulo Ishizaka along for the ride as soloists. Chamber music concerts and lectures are also part of the docket. And so is, to get back to the strippers, an event called “Brahms, Beards & Burlesque.”
That would be a casual evening (Feb. 18) of music inspired by the young Brahms’ gigs as a pianist in brothels in his native Hamburg, Germany, starting when he was only 12. Performers from the Michigan Burlesque Festival will do their thing (an artful approach to striptease without nudity), and there will be a beard competition in honor of Brahms’ famous Rip Van Winkle-like facial hair. The DSO is obviously looking for a populist marketing angle, and nothing sells like sex, accompanied, it seems, by alliteration — note how “Brahms, Beards & Burlesque” presents an alternative Three Bs to counter the traditional triumvirate of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
Still, there’s a larger point. Anything that humanizes Brahms, that reminds audiences that he was a man of flesh-and-blood, is all to the good. Because for many concertgoers, Brahms has come to embody the stereotypes of classical music as a rarefied and stuffy enterprise. Brahms represents a kind of paradox. On the one hand, his music is a staple of the concert hall, and much of it is beloved. Yet casual audiences and connoisseurs alike have a tendency to put him on a pedestal, to transform him into a monument of serious music, an unsmiling deity of 19th-Century culture. Maybe it’s the formal rigor that defines even his most emotional music. Maybe it’s the fact that Brahms opposed the romantic vogue for program music — music tied to specific stories and narratives — championed by his contemporaries Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.
Maybe it’s the Three B moniker. Maybe it’s the Grizzly Bear profile. Maybe it’s the beard.