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If you think Brahms will just put you to sleep, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which starts a three-week Brahms Festival today, wants a word with you.

“Brahms is one of those composers who is most likely to keep you awake all of the time,” DSO music director Leonard Slatkin wrote in an email from Lyon, France. “The sheer variety in each piece makes you wonder what is coming next.”

The Brahms Festival, Feb. 11-28, will include, in part, all four of the 19th-century romantic composer’s symphonies, his two piano concerti, his only violin concerto, and his Sonata for Clarinet and Orchestra arranged by Luciano Berio.

Tchaikovsky was the subject of last year’s festival, and Beethoven the year before, when Slatkin launched the tradition.

Asked what he was most looking forward to, Slatkin chose the “Third Symphony.”

“It’s the least played of the four,” he wrote, adding that the “Third” “has an amazing structure and lyricism that defy categorization. Again, that third movement melts the heart.”

The festival’s “official Brahms scholar,” biographer and music historian Jan Swafford, says his favorites include the “Violin Concerto” and the “Piano Quartet in G Minor,” arranged for the orchestra after Brahms’ death by the Austrian musician Arnold Schönberg, and sometimes called Brahms’ “Fifth Symphony.”

“In effect,” Swafford says, “Schönberg turned an early Brahms chamber piece into a symphony. Schönberg always claimed he didn’t do anything Brahms wouldn’t have done. The finale,” he adds, “is a gypsy piece — and it’s hilarious.”

Swafford calls Brahms “very original and a traditionalist,” who, unlike many of his contemporaries, returned to the “classical,” highly structured musical forms beloved of the 18th century — sonatas, orotorios, fugues and string quartets, to name just a few.

It’s a musical cliché to say that Brahms’ music reflects his emotional state when writing — he was famously depressive, yet not all his music fits that bill. The two Serenades that will be performed, Swafford notes, are “sunny and light — everything you think Brahms can’t do.”

The truth is, he says, like a lot of people prone to depression, Brahms could be very funny.

“He could be a lot of fun,” Swafford says. “But if he was in a bad mood? He’d cut you off at the knees.”

Toward the end, Brahms — a lifelong liberal — was profoundly disturbed by the conservative, anti-Semitic turn that his adopted Austria and his native Germany took, and that hopelessness, he adds, gave rise to his fourth and final symphony.

“The ‘Fourth Symphony’ doesn’t have a word in it,” Swafford says, “but it’s piece about despair over his culture, and ends on a very dark note.”

Happily, on balance, the Brahms Festival will be anything but dark.

Not only will most concerts be introduced by Swafford, the DSO has lined up several fun events, including a special Mix @ the Max “Brahms, Beards & Burlesque” evening Feb. 18, with a beard contest, yoga with a live string quartet Feb. 21, and a “Late-Night Lieder” songfest Feb. 27 led by performers from a range of state universities.

And in keeping with its outreach to suburban communities, two chamber recitals will be performed outside of Detroit — one in Commerce Township, Feb. 22, and the other in Grosse Pointe Woods, Feb. 23 .

MHodges@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mhodgesartguy

‘DSO Brahms

Festival’

Feb. 11-Feb. 28

Orchestra Hall and other venues around town

Tickets: $15-$100

Visit dso.org/brahmsfest for the full schedule

(313) 576-5111

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