Berlin’s STEGREIF.orchester is a collective of 30 young classical musicians with an unusual mission. They compose new versions of classical symphonies and perform them without scores or a conductor, aiming to free them of their baggage and bring them up close to new audiences. Their recent #freebeethoven and #freeschubert projects infused Beethoven’s 4th and Schubert’s 9th symphonies with dance and improvisation, to much acclaim.
On Saturday evening, I caught a performance of their latest work, #freebrahms, a choreographed reimagining of Brahms’ Third Symphony in F major. After being freed firstly of our shoes, the audience entered the smoke-filled (and sweltering) main hall to find the group clustered in the centre of the room, meditatively humming a version of the opening harmonies of the symphony. We were invited to sit in the stands or find a place on the floor around the musicians.
What ensued was a set of 15-minute versions of each of the four movements. Brahms’ themes would swell up every now and then and immediately be used as material for improvisation in a dizzying range of styles: klezmer-tinged clarinet, jazz guitar, a wailing cello and vocal solo. The clarinet melody from the 2nd movement merged into an extended saxophone solo, a clever way of subtly ‘updating’ it. The musicians were almost constantly in motion (cellists and bassist included!), dispersing into the stands, throwing themselves on the floor for sections at a time, the percussionists wheeling around on small platforms. A theatrical cello solo ended in the player tearing and biting his bow hair and then snapping the wood in half.
I found a lot of the choreography effective and in some moments, it brought out the strange and experimental elements in Brahms’ score. For instance, the players began the third movement processing around the small central stage with clunky, zombie-robot movements, emphasising the peculiarity of Brahms’ stop-start waltz.
All of this culminated in a crazy, exhilarating fourth movement, in which Brahms’ Hungarian inflections went through the STEGREIF blender and came out as salsa, complete with conga drums and cowbell. Something happened that has most definitely not occurred at any previous performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony: people got up and danced. They danced, they clapped rhythms back, they cheered. It was infectious.
I’m definitely not a Brahms purist. I think a lot of classical music is pretty danceable and that this repertoire needs to be treated flexibly: it can and should be chopped up and reblended. It’s also helpful to remember that improvisation by performers was often a part of compositions up until roughly the late 18th century and that some composers pre-Brahms did think about how to play with the physical setup of the performance (e.g. the close of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, where the players are directed to leave the stage one by one).
But the right balance between enriching reinvention and watering something down is difficult to achieve. At times, STEGREIF’s imaginative performance risked diluting itself into ‘Brahms 3: The Musical’. The close of the first movement, for instance, was celebrated with a kind of ‘We Will Rock You’ bashing out of the main theme, supported exaggeratedly by electric guitar and drum kit. And while Brahms does bring back the opening harmonies at the end of the symphony, he doesn’t quite bring back the main theme like the STEGREIF arrangement did (albeit much more calmly than at the end of the first movement). Maybe less would have been more…
But hey, in many ways a symphony is just a collection of bangin’ tunes. So why not get to the point and present it like that? The STEGREIF performers played their version with such conviction, as if this is something they’d always been itching to do with this old piece of music. You can argue about whether Brahms had been appropriately liberated from tradition, but a dancing, clapping crowd of all ages testifies to one thing: it certainly felt freeing to experience STEGREIF’s performance. And maybe that’s the more important result.