Houston Symphony Magazine From the Orchestra March 2011
On behalf my colleagues in the Houston symphony, welcome to Jones Hall and this month's exciting lineup of concerts! Musicians are frequently asked about our favorite composer or compositions, and answering this question is often like trying to pick your favorite child—impossible! There are so many incredible works by genius composers that the idea of singling out one, or even a handful, seems hopeless. How could you choose a favorite Beethoven symphony to the exclusion of the others? This month however, in addition to two weeks that feature classical works so well known and beloved that they need no introduction, we also spend a week immersed in three monumental works of Richard Strauss, a composer on almost every orchestral musician's list of favorites.
Strauss's life spanned an era of enormous change, in music and almost every other aspect of life. At the time of his birth, in 1864, Brahms was a young man and Wagner was in his prime. When he died in 1949, the outlines of today's modern world were already visible. Unlike the clichés of the flamboyant composer, Strauss was a mild, business-like man and somewhat hen-pecked husband, but in composition, his dramatic fantasy took flight. Strauss became known for virtuosic and theatrical orchestral writing and was the first to unleash the full force of the expanded orchestra and techniques of Wagner into the symphonic realm. His first tone poem, Don Juan, was boldly original: Symphonic music of operatic scope, eschewing conventional forms to create music unabashedly at the service of the storyline. He challenged the orchestra as no one previously had, and the success of Don Juan was followed by other grand tone poems including Don Quixote, also heard in this month, and the well known Also Sprach Zarathustra and the (immodestly titled) self portrait, A Hero's Life, both to be heard next season.
But for all the drama and sizzling virtuosity of the tone poems, it is his Four Last Songs, written shortly before his death, that I most look forward to hearing this month. At the age of 25, Strauss wrote Death and Transfiguration, a youthful portrait of a dying hero, full of drama, struggle and triumph. When, at 84, he returned to the subject of mortality, he had witnessed his homeland and the pre-eminent cultural world he had helped create hijacked and driven to misery, death and destruction. (Strauss had been held a virtual hostage by the Nazi regime, forced to be an artistic propaganda figurehead in order to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.) In the Four Last Songs, dying is no longer a grand, dramatic struggle. Instead, the songs speak of death and life with a beautiful serenity and nostalgic, autumnal glow that makes these simple songs among the most powerful music ever written. Such heart-rending warmth and peace coming in the last days of the master of musical melodrama- a man who has seen his world destroy itself and yet leaves not with a shaking fist, but with a sublime calm and accepting heartbreak. Every time I hear them, I know that I am being shown a glimpse of some greater truth that Strauss knew at the end of his life. It's goose-bump inducing music that transforms our very understanding of life and death and shows the power great music has to truly change us. We look forward to sharing all of this month's masterpieces with you. Enjoy the concert.