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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Concert Review: The Private Lives of the Great Composers

Beethoven and Strauss at the Lincoln Center Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Dr. Richard Strauss at the piano in 1903.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
The concept of the "program symphony," where multiple movements tell some kind of coherent story or evoke a time and place originated with Ludwig van Beethoven and the Symphony No. 6, known as the Pastorale. On Friday night, the Cleveland Orchestra played the third of four concerts this week at the Lincoln Center Festival. Music director Franz Welser-Möst paired the Pastorale with the Symphonia Domestica, a stellar example of the genre written a century later by Richard Strauss.


Mr. Welser-Möst brought  much-needed vitality to this familar first movement. This was a portrait of life and motion, an idiosyncratic and yet sensible approach that emphasized the life and energy of Beethoven's imaginary countryside. It had momentum but also had a sense of relaxed joy at the simple country pleasures that so inspired its creator. Great clarity of tone from the Cleveland players brought hidden treasures to light--the fading gallop of hoof-beats, a hunting horn that emerged clearly at a key point and the gentle dimunuendo of the main theme in the coda.

The second movement also started quickly but rolled from Andante into a smooth and flowing Adagio. The bird-calls that dominate this movement were of crystalline quality. Mr. Welser-Möst and his Cleveland players had the gusto of an Austrian town band in the stomping third movement, with the horns sounding their calls with a deliberate and thrilling crudity. All this effect came to a head in the two-part finale. The orchestral Storm burst with astonishing power and a solemn yet moving Shepherd's Song that highlighted the skill and sweet tone of this orchestra's exceptional wind ensemble.

Richard Strauss' catalogue contains a number of works that refer to his own life (Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) chronicled all of his orchestral achievements up until the age of 34!) and to his lengthy and his alternatively blissful and stormy marriage to former opera soprano Pauline de Ahna. (The 1924 opera Intermezzo is a portrait of that marriage based on a real incident that almost caused the Strausses to divorce.) Yet none of these autobiographical works would draw as much critical disdain and outright venom as the Symphonia Domestica a tone poem that portrayed a typical day in the lives of Richard, Pauline and their six-year-old son Franz.

Strauss built this work from three short leitmotifs. Three-note themes represent himself and his wife (in tonally opposing keys with the notes moving in opposite directions) and a short, plaintive solo on the oboe d'amore stands in for little Franz. Mr. Welser-Möst played this opening exposition with a refreshing lack of sentimentality, opening ears to the glories of Strauss' orchestration and the tempests that the composer found in his own domestic teapot. The second movement, a nursery scherzo chronicled Franz's daily adventures, capturing the range of emotions from happy playtime to infantile tantrums to eventual exhaustion.

Seven chimes announce the start of the slow movement, a depiction of the quiet night life of Richard and Pauline. A brief passage chronicling Strauss working at his composing desk briefly references Ein Heldenleben before the love scene between husband and wife. Working with a sharp pen, Strauss made this a very funny parody of Tristan und Isolde with the florid chromaticism of Wagner continually resolving into the diatonic chords of ardor and marital bliss. An even more voluptuous dream sequence follows, ended by seven more chimes announcing the break of day.

The finale of the Domestica takes the two opposing themes of "Richard" and "Pauline" and uses them to launch an elaborate double fugue, the musical argument representing a domestic squabble between longtime partners. The orchestration turns heated, going faster and faster before bursting into a giant fortissimo, the very moment when people in such a situation realize that their efforts are ridiculous and that it is time to back off. The long tail of the finale incorporated everything that had gone before in true symphonic fashion, with Mr. Welser-Möst handling the complex cues and recapitulations in a tremendous juggling act. As the work swept to the finish, conductor and orchestra had succeeded in making a case for this little heard work, and perhaps getting it back onto New York concert programs with greater frequency in the seasons to come.

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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.