A view from a different podium- Christopher Zimmerman on Brahms 1

Conductor Christopher Zimmerman is Music Director of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. In 1993, he and I were both newly arrived on the campus of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music: Chris as the conductor of the Concert Orchestra, me as a new Doctoral student in Cello. Keen to move forward with my interest in conducting, I approached Chris for lessons. He told me to bugger off.  Finally, he admitted me to his conducting seminar class, where the featured work we studied was none other than Brahms 1. Fortunately, the seminar was brilliant, I had a bit of ability and destiny was served. Chris and I became good friends and when I set up the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop several years ago, I invited Chris to join me on the faculty.

Conductor Christopher Zimmerman thinking deep thoughts about Brahms 1


As part of Brahms 1 week, I thought it would be fun to pick the brain of the man who first guided me through the piece. His teaching method at the time was simplicity itself- I was ordered to make a thorough analysis of it, then to memorize it and conduct it, after which, he just asked me question after question about the orchestration and form which I had to answer with the score closed. I felt pretty proud of myself after conducting it from memory for the first time in my exam- after 30 minutes of the Spanish Inquisition from Chris, I felt  quite thoroughly humbled. Lesson learned. Good stuff.

Brahms 1 is a special piece for CZ as well- he conducts it often, and has continued to teach it to a generation of conductors, first at CCM then at the Hartt School, where he was director of Orchestral Conducting for many years, and at the RCICW.



KW: It’s well known that Brahms 1 and Shostakovich 10 are your party pieces. I’ve even heard you describe Brahms 1 (admittedly usually after at least one beer) as “my piece.” Why Brahms 1?

CW: I guess I call it jokingly “my piece” because I have conducted it more than any other symphony (apart from perhaps Shost 10 and Beethoven 3) by design and by default.  Also I studied it quite assiduously for many years before my first outing with it–because I was so scared of it, particularly the incredibly opaque and tightly-knit first movement–and so when my first performance of it was not a complete disaster, I somehow felt very close to it.  Also I think the opening 8 measures are a miracle.

What was your first experience of the piece as a listener? A player? A conductor?

I think I first heard the piece at home in my early teens on the record player (my mum was a great Brahms fan).  First live performance was much later at college (Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony–I thought he took the introduction much too fast at the time, but now I am more sensitive to the perils of belaboring it too much).  Never played it in my college orchestra.  First conducted it in my first concert as Concert Orchestra Director at CCM (Ken, wasn’t it you who fled the auditorium howling, covering your ears…?).

Over the years since you first conducted Brahms 1, how often have you returned to it, and how has your take on it evolved?

I have conducted it maybe ten times.  Since I have studied it very closely, I am not sure that my thoughts on balance, line, phrasing and what’s “important” to emphasize etc…have changed that much.  What seems much more elusive to me, and is under constant re-evaluation, is tempo.  An absorbing account of this piece depends so much on the “right” tempi:  clarity vs. muddle, sweep vs. stodginess, inevitability vs. mannered etc..Of course all this can apply to any piece, but this piece is particularly dense, rich and complex on so many levels that ill-considered tempi alone can make the difference between a performance of utter exhilaration and beauty and one of obfuscatory meaninglessness.

What about the piece gets easier with experience? What gets harder?

Unifying the orchestra into a cohesive whole clearly gets easier since, over time and with experience, one gets used to hearing the various levels of complexity.  What gets harder applies to most every piece:  i.e. the more you do it, the more you understand it and thus the more it offers up for further consideration.  Tempi for example (see above).  Old adage–the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know–applies well!

I know you’ve often done Brahms 1 as a candidate for various music director job. What can this piece tell you about an orchestra and what does it show the orchestra about you as a conductor?

Good question.  As much as any other piece this work exhibits all the challenges that orchestras must grapple with:  beauty and projection of solo playing, precision of ensemble in intractably difficult passages (e.g. leaping phrases, opaque textures, fiendish syncopated rhythms all at the same time WITHIN an accelerando!), color+texture+timbre all executed with transparency, ability to hear and accompany with flexibility etc..the list goes on.  Much the same for the conductor;  probably though the two most significant qualities required from the conductor are:

1.) an extremely strong rhythmic grounding and sense of pulse and

2.) a clear sense of phrase and musical breathing, both micro and macro.

These have to be coupled with an ability to hear what’s going on and respond accordingly.  A conductor who drives the orchestra and beats without listening will have a train wreck by about bar 16.  And good luck to this conductor with ANY of the 2nd movement!

There are huge essays and tracts written about tempo relationships in Brahms 1. Do you use any mathematical relationship between, for instance, the Introduction and the Allegro of the first movement, or the Adagio and Piu andante of the Finale?

With regard to the 1st mvt., not consciously.

There are indeed essays on the adagio/piu andante relationship in the Finale.  The question these essays try to solve is:  does the rhythmic notation at this transition of, effectively, the only moving part–the timpani–reveal the precise tempo relation between the adagio and the subsequent piu andante that Brahms wants?  Since this timpani part could easily have been notated as a mere roll, but instead Brahms has written explicitly detailed rhythmic groupings from beat to beat (roll to triplet 32nds to triplet 16ths), the argument that this rhythmic underpinning indicates a tempo relationship is a powerful one.  But, there are two problems: 1) from my experience, it is very hard to effect this clearly in practice;  and even if one does, the result can be musically willful and somewhat dogmatic.  2) Brahms’ own 4 hand arrangement of the symphony (written after) at this spot offers a different rhythmic grouping (roll to triplet 32nds to 32nds to triplet 16ths).  This suggests a 4:3 relation rather than a 2:1 relation.  So, even if the timpani manages to excecute this passage with utmost clarity, taste and musical ease and inevitability, which is right….??  And even if one is better than the other (methinks 4:3), should the power of this transition–a hugely significant and emotional moment–be entirely dependent on the clear and precise execution of a hard-to-discern timpani rhythm?  The answer is no.  What needs to happen is for the piu andante music to “emerge from the dust” of the previous climax of the adagio enthrallingly and inevitably–a real denouement. Do it how you will, but get the right emotional effect.  End of sermon.

Do you have an ideal Brahms orchestra? If you could record the Brahms with any orchestra, from any period in time, what would it be?

I am not picky.  Ideally a great German orchestra of today (Berlin Phil would do), with the “authentic” seating, i.e. violins antiphonal, and maybe basses around the back.

What about other Brahms interpreters? Have there been any mind shattering, world altering interpretations that opened your eyes to the piece in a new way, or any old favorites you keep returning to?

I haven’t heard so many recordings, and only one that grabbed me–and that was in one particular spot.  It was Furtwangler with Berlin and the passage is from the finale big tune exposition (allegro non troppo, ma con brio) to the animato some 33 bars later.  The music at the animato is wonderfully “animated” and energetically transformed from the majestic sweep of the allegro, like a metamorphosis, but it is entirely unclear as to where and when this happens or even begins.  Masterful!

Any tips for young conductors getting to grips with the piece for the first time?

This is not a piece to read cursorily (I know it’s naughty to say, but some pieces will fly off the page however prepared or not you, the conductor, may be).  Break the back of its density by understand the harmonies, harmonic rhythm, where motifs and phrases begin, end, overlap, dovetail etc….  If you do this there is a chance that some tempi will be right.

Make sure the 2nd movement breathes in quarter-notes.

And, please, someone tell me how to get the 3rd movement to sound beautiful in general and how to get the stringendo into the coda of the last movement to really work!


About CZ

[You can see Chris conducting some mean Mahler here)

Reviewing Christopher Zimmerman’s concert with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra in May 2009, Mark Estren of The Washington Post writes, “(In Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony) Zimmerman pushed the strings, especially in the quicksilver second movement, and they delivered beautifully. And he paid close attention not only to sarcasm and grotesquerie but also to soft passages — this orchestra can handle quietude, but few conductors ask it to.” Zimmerman’s direction of the orchestra led to his immediate appointment as its new Music Director. Building on a career leading regional orchestras in the US and England, this most recent post confirms what critics and audiences alike have experienced attending Zimmerman’s concerts. From his professional debut, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, of which The Daily Telegraph of London observed “Contact with the orchestra seemed immediate, the result a reading in which the playing responded keenly to gestures which themselves were expressive both of the symphony’s fiery vigour and of its finer nuances. Christopher Zimmerman revealed a sharp interpretative profile and control of orchestral timbre…. a most auspicious London debut.” to guest conducting in Cleveland with the Ohio Chamber Orchestra, where Donald Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer described his performance as “some of the finest conducting at Severance (Hall) in recent years,” Zimmerman elicits enthusiasm and praise.

Christopher Zimmerman graduated from Yale with a B.A. in Music, and received his Master’s from the University of Michigan. He also studied with Seiji Ozawa and Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood, and at the Pierre Monteux School in Maine with Charles Bruck. Zimmerman served as an apprentice to Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony  and in Prague, as assistant conductor to Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

Zimmerman’s debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was followed by engagements with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He has also conducted the Prague Symphony, the Slovak Philharmonic, the Seoul Philharmonic, the Mexico City Philharmonic, the Edmonton Symphony, the Hartford Symphony, the El Paso Symphony, the Ohio Chamber Orchestra and the Prague Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra among many other orchestras.  In opera he has worked as the assistant conductor for “Carmen” at the Nimes Festival and as assistant conductor for “Salome” at the Mexico City Opera where he was immediately reinvited to conduct a production of “Gianni Schicchi”. In 1989 he co-founded and became Music Director of the City of London Chamber Orchestra.










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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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