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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An Open Birthday Greeting to Richard Strauss

A Letter to the Composer on his 150th Birthday.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The composer Richard Strauss at his desk in between letters from an American blogger.
Photo © 2014 Richard-Strauss Institut, Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Paul J. Pelkonen
Editor, Superconductor
*** 44th St. Apt. *
Brooklyn NY 11220 USA

Dr. Richard Strauss,
The Villa Strauss, 42 Zoeppritzstraße,
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany 82467                             June 11, 2014

Dear Dr. Strauss:

I know we don't know each other and I am sure you are getting a lot of birthday greetings today. I wanted to take this occasion to wish you the very happiest of 150th birthdays and to write a little about what your music has meant to me in the past 25 years of my life. I'm an American music critic living and working in New York City, and my music blog Superconductor is frequently devoted to writing about your work.

When I was young, I first recognized your name as the gentleman who wrote the music that is commonly referred to here as the "2001" theme, that is the Dawn from your tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra. I enjoyed that brief selection when I saw the movie but didn't know it was the opening of a huge and gloriously complex work that still proves rewarding to me today.

The first recording of your music that I ever purchased was a cheap three-dollar cassette of Zarathustra (the Vienna Philharmonic recording with Herbert von Karajan at a Sam Goody in Rockaway, NJ. That night, I fell asleep in my bed at our summer house in North Jersey, pressing "play" on my little tape recorder. I was blissfully unaware that in 30 minutes, the tolling bell of Zarathustra's Midnight Song would wake the entire house from sleep. As an aficionado of American and British loud music (called "heavy metal") the sheer power and volume of this work appealed to me--though I learned to listen to it on headphones.

As I got older, I recognized that your catalogue had more to it than Zarathustra when my Mom took me (at age 16) to see my first live performance of one of your operas: Die Frau ohne Schatten. Two minutes into that massive work, I was enchanted although there were no surtitles, I spoke no German and had little idea of the plot. I didn't care--that day I became drunk on orchestration.

When I finished grad school and got my first job (I think I was 23) I saw my first Der Rosenkavalier at the New York City Opera in Jonathan Miller's excellent production. The rough-and-tumble humor of Rosenkavalier communicated itself to me in the theater--helped since I already had acquired the Bernard Haitink recording of the opera--still my favorite version.

Other operas and concert performances of your works followed. Thanks to the industrious work of conductor Leon Botstein, I discovered the joys of your rare operas: Daphne, Die Ägyptische Helene and Die Liebe der Danäe. A late-night PBS broadcast of Capriccio from Vienna with Anna Tomowa-Sintow caused me to stay up to operate the VCR. And I finally saw Salome, Elektra and Ariadne auf Naxos. I was in my late 20s. And I was a confirmed Straussian.

As I've grown in the last decade, I've come to appreciate the wide diversity of your catalogue and the inspiration behind "underrated" works like Intermezzo. I've even seen (and hated) a performance of Schlagobers (thankfully without the dancing candy!)  This year I saw my first concert performance of Feuersnot, again with Dr. Botstein conducting. But I think the most important and personal work for me is Metamorphosen--the most heartbreaking music of the 20th century and an elegy for your country before the Nazis and the horrors of World War II.

I will conclude this long, rambling letter with a simple "thank you" and "Happy Birthday."

I wish you all the best and Grüsse Gott.


Paul J. Pelkonen,
Editor, Superconductor

P.S. Burn this before Pauline sees it.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.