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Classical Beat: Pianist Roger Wiesmeyer plays Brahms for the homeless

In 1892, Johannes Brahms began composing a remarkable series of 20 piano miniatures that ultimately defined his mature style. These autumnal works were intricate, introspective and often quite melancholy – Brahms once referred to the three intermezzi, Op. 117 as the “cradle songs of my sorrow.” All of the pieces were intensely lyrical, and the composer apparently enjoyed nothing more than playing them on his living room piano.

Pianist Roger Wiesmeyer will attempt to recreate that intimate Brahmsian experience this Sunday, when he performs the composer’s late piano works, Opp. 118 and 119. Wiesmeyer will play this music on his own fabulously restored Steinway baby grand piano, a rare Model O that’s nearly as old as Brahms’ piano music – so in a sense, this will be a period-instrument concert. The recital, a benefit for The Contributor street newspaper, will be streamed live from Wiesmeyer’s cozy living room starting at 7 p.m. on www.stageit.com.

rogerOne of Nashville’s most versatile instrumentalists, Wiesmeyer is probably best known as the principal English horn player for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. He also plays oboe for the adventurous ALIAS Chamber Ensemble. A veteran pianist, Wiesmeyer began his piano studies at age 4, when he started taking lessons with Ellenita Zimmermann in Nashville.

“My mother took me to see Ellenita and asked if she could give me lessons,” Wiesmeyer recalls. “She said no because I was too young, but then I played her my rendition of ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ using chords I’d picked out myself. After that she told my mom that of course she’d teach me. Ellenita and I remained great friends until the day she died.” Providentially, Wiesmeyer notes that his recital this Sunday falls on the 90th anniversary of Zimmermann’s birth.

Wiesmeyer continued his piano studies at the Blair School of Music with Roland Schneller. He also took up a new instrument, the oboe, and began working with oboist Bobby Taylor. Wiesmeyer isn’t exactly sure why he opted to play a second instrument. “I guess the piano was kind of isolating, and I wanted to play something that was more social,” Wiesmeyer says. “My first choice was to play bassoon, because I felt I was temperamentally a bassoonist. I don’t take myself that seriously. But bassoons were too expensive, so I took up oboe.”

Wiesmeyer made huge strides on the oboe, and after graduating from Hillsboro High School he attended Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with John de Lancie and Richard Woodhams. “I really took to the oboe, because it’s a linear instrument, and I think I’m pretty good at taking a musical line and spinning it out for as long as possible,” he says.

After Curtis, Wiesmeyer played oboe with orchestras in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Honolulu. He counts playing the Mahler Ninth with the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas as being among his most unforgettable experiences. In 2001, he decided to return home when the Nashville Symphony offered him the English horn chair.

Not long after returning to Nashville, Wiesmeyer began one of his favorite projects, his annual Mozart birthday concert at Edgehill United Methodist Church. The January concert, now in its eleventh season, raises money every year for the church along with some of Wiesmeyer’s other favorite charities and social justice causes. Proceeds from January’s concert went to the church and to Occupy Nashville.

Wiesmeyer was so pleased with last January’s Mozart concert that he asked the arts education expert and consultant Mitchell Korn for advice on how to expand his charitable work. “I told Mitchell that I wanted to do these kinds of benefit concerts for the rest of my life,” Wiesmeyer says. “He suggested that I first expand my web presence. That’s how the idea for the Brahms recital was born.”

brahmsBrahms’ late piano works are a natural fit for a parlor concert. The pieces are generally short and highly personal, and they convey their subtle emotional meanings best in an intimate setting. Wiesmeyer has been playing some these pieces for 30 years. Others – like the Romanze, Op. 118 No. 5 – have been in his repertoire for just a few months.

Like most pianists, Wiesmeyer is attracted to Brahms’ appealing melodies and rich harmonies. But he’s also impressed with the composer’s extraordinary craftsmanship. “I love the way Brahms plays around with tonality,” says Wiesmeyer. “In the Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 1, Brahms doesn’t let you know what key you’re in until the last measures.”

Brahms does something similar in his amazing Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119 No. 1, in which B minor and D major are constantly competing for dominance. Even Arnold Schoenberg, the high priest of early 20th-century dissonance and inventor of the 12-tone system, was impressed with the B-minor intermezzo.

Similarly, Schoenberg viewed the deceptively simple and lovely Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118 No. 2 as a kind of divine revelation. The piece opens with a simple three-note motif – C-sharp, B, D – that is soon interwoven throughout the texture of the piece. In effect, Brahms uses melody to create harmony. This became the model for some of Schoenberg’s revolutionary 20th-century piano pieces.

Brahms ends his late piano works with the Rhapsodie in E-flat major, Op. 119 No. 4, a dark and sometimes aggressive piece. The lighthearted and peace-loving Wiesmeyer felt uncomfortable ending a recital with that kind of music. So as an encore, he will play Schubert’s life-affirming Impromptu in G-flat major, Op. 90 No. 3. “The Schubert will be like salve to the wounds,” Wiesmeyer says.

 Roger Wiesmeyer plays Brahms’ late piano works, Opp. 118 and 119 as a benefit for The Contributor, a street newspaper that advocates for the homeless. The performance will be streamed live starting at 7 p.m. Central Time on www.stageit.com. Tickets for the show are available here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.