In Central New York, March is the cruelest month; and although, when we planned this concert, we couldn’t be sure what the weather would be when it took place, we were confident that a sunny, upbeat program would be appropriate. We open with Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, composed in 1894–5 by Richard Strauss (1864–1949). Strauss was an exceptionally wide-ranging composer, sometimes philosophical (Also sprach Zarathustra), sometimes perversely decadent (Salome), sometimes poignantly bittersweet (the Four Last Songs). Till Eulenspiegel shows that his capacity for slapstick was unmatched, too. The tone poem is based on tales that date back at least to the 16th century, tales of a trickster who punctures the pretentions of the conventional townspeople around him. Despite this literary inspiration, however, and despite what conductor Larry Loh rightly points out as the “Once Upon a Time” opening, Strauss was loath to provide a specific program, directing our attention to the score’s purely musical elements instead.
In particular, he pointed to two themes representing our anti-hero that show his character right off the bat—a deceptively cajoling tune introduced by the violins at very beginning and a more important one brought in boisterously by the first horn right after. As Larry puts it, “There’s no doubt how much of a prankster he is, by the way the rhythm dances across the bar lines in such an unexpected way. The beats are not where you expect them to be.” These themes provide much of the material of the piece, and hearing how they’re twisted and turned for a riotous quarter hour provides consistent delight, doubly so given Strauss’s brilliant orchestration. You can’t avoid the program entirely, however, since toward the end, the music becomes almost viscerally literal: at the climax, Till is captured and sentenced to be executed, an event marked by long drum rolls and stentorian brass. Even here, Till the jokester, represented by squawks from the E-flat clarinet, remains irrepressible, sticking his tongue out at the “upright” members of his community until death. Until death—or beyond it? For the work’s brief epilogue makes clear that his spirit has not been squelched.
Coincidentally, our closer, the five-movement Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) by Robert Schumann (1810–1856), begins with an ebullient theme that, Larry points out, plays with the beat in a way that may remind you of the horn theme in Till. On the surface, the symphony’s spirit is quite different from that of Strauss’s tone poem—buoyant where Strauss’s is manic, celebratory where Strauss’s is consciously unruly, marked by an inward glow where Strauss’s is ostentatiously flashy. Still, it shares Till’s profound optimism.
Biographically, its uplift may seem surprising. Schumann wrote the symphony quickly, in little over a month, toward the end of 1850, right after his setting of Byron’s tortured Manfred and just a few years before an attempted suicide led to his institutionalization for the final years of his life. But there’s not a trace of despair in the work, supposedly fueled by a vacation along the Rhine. Yes, the fourth movement (sometimes considered an extended introduction to the fifth) is grave. Said to be inspired—while he was in the middle of composing the work—by a ceremony at the Cologne Cathedral, it begins with a chorale (introduced by trombones) that grows increasingly rich and contrapuntal as the movement continues. But while the music is solemn, it’s far from gloomy; and the other four movements have unbuttoned high spirits.
In between these two Germanic masterpieces, we have the Flute Concerto composed in 1992 by American composer Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961), performed by our principal flutist, Xue Su. It will, I think, be immediately obvious why Xue chose to share it with us this evening. The work is brimming with melodic beauty (evident from the very opening measures), rhythmic imagination, and opportunities for virtuoso display. The excitement in what Xue calls the “technically challenging” finale is literally breathless. “It keeps going faster—it doesn’t slow down. I don’t catch a break, ever!”
Whatever the challenges for the performer, it’s one of those pieces that insinuates itself with the listener on first hearing—which may explain why it has been so popular since it was first performed. Yes, it’s full of surprises. Some are local (unexpected metrical shifts, unusual orchestral sounds like the combination of piccolo and contrabassoon in the finale); some involve larger formal design (it’s fairly rare for a concerto’s first movement to end slowly and quietly). Still, the concerto works within the tradition, not against it—for instance, it’s tonal, it’s got the expected three-movement fast/slow/fast structure, and the themes are all readily recognizable. And if you hear echoes of Korngold in the opening theme, or of Prokofiev and even Tchaikovsky in the finale, you won’t be alone.
What Xue likes most about the piece is its timbral range, especially in the central movement, which is “all about color.” This won’t surprise regular Symphoria attendees, who are familiar with the nuances Xue always draws from her instrument. How does she do it? Interestingly, it’s a combination of the visual and the communal. On the one hand, her tonal quality is tied to her visual imagination—“I tend to have pictures in my head when I’m playing, especially when it’s a solo work. It helps me create the sound and character that I’m aiming for.” At the same time, her tonal quality is tied to her sense of community: how she sounds depends a great deal on who she is playing with. As a result, as she prepares, it makes a difference to know who she will be playing with. And she’s especially pleased to be able to perform this work for the first time with these particular players, her colleagues in Symphoria. “I know how they play, I know their sounds, I know how to blend in with them, even when I’m standing in front. It means a lot.”
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org