Sensational soprano Sari Gruber returns to Syracuse to perform Strauss’ gloriously serene and transcendent Four Last Songs. Copland’s masterpiece Symphony No. 3, with its inspiring last movement based on Fanfare for the Common Man, is featured after intermission for an unforgettable conclusion.
ESMAIL: Black Iris #metoo
STRAUSS: Four last songs, TrV 296 COPLAND: Symphony No. 3
With the rise of National Socialism, however, Strauss found ...
With the rise of National Socialism, however, Strauss found himself aesthetically dried up and morally confused. Few of his newer large-scale works caught on; and squeezed by a political system he abhorred but couldn’t resist, he took an administrative post with the Nazis, thinking it might help him protect Jewish members of his family and colleagues. After the war, excoriated by many for both his suspect politics and his by now old-fashioned music, he moved to Switzerland awaiting clearance from a denazification panel.
Yet somehow, beginning in 1941, he produced another series of masterpieces, quiet and nostalgic works, many of which seem to be trying to come to terms with the collapse of German culture—and, perhaps, his own role in that collapse. His last opera Capriccio, the Oboe Concerto, the Second Horn Concerto, and Metamorphoses (a response to the bombing of Munich) are all part of this artistic renewal. For many listeners, though, the radiant Four Last Songs—his last finished work except for a brief unpublished song—is the pinnacle.
Did Strauss compose this cycle as a farewell? Certainly, “Im Abendrot”—which quotes his earlier tone poem Death and Transfiguration—suggests so. And as tonight’s soloist Sari Gruber points out, “It’s extraordinary that he got to the end of his life and this is what he wanted to write.” Although there’s plenty of regret in this bittersweet collection, there’s no pain: patient and radiant, it’s music of transcendent acceptance. Strauss was renowned as an orchestrator, but nothing he wrote shows his mastery as gloriously as does this score, which often sounds like chamber music. He was especially skilled in combining voice and orchestra, a point of contact with his beloved Mozart. As Sari says, “Nobody understood writing for voice and orchestra like Strauss and Mozart.”
While the Four Last Songs sounds strikingly simple, in fact there are extreme technical difficulties (especially rhythmic) under the surface, difficulties that have to be hidden from the listeners. More challenging for the singer, though is the need to keep emotions under control. Sari explains: “What I find so hard about this piece is that it is so loaded. And if I linger too long in the moment, it hits. I don’t want it to be detached at all, so I have to figure out how to get through it without sentimentality”—otherwise, she may break down. She never has broken down, but she has had to sing through tears. I suspect that many in the audience tonight will be listening through tears.
In his prime, Strauss was the German composer; Aaron Copland (1900 –1990) held a parallel status in the United States during his peak years. And he was certainly at his peak when he wrote his Symphony No. 3. It was composed in 1944-46, just a short time before Strauss wrote the Four Last Songs, but the two works have very different stances. Strauss was in a reflective mood as he looked at a destroyed world; Copland was at his most outgoing, confident, and optimistic as he looked at a world of tremendous potential.
Surprisingly, Copland seemed, at the time, eager to play down his reputation as what he called, in his program notes for the premiere, “a purveyor of Americana.” He was insistent about his attempt to avoid jazz and folk music, and analyzed the symphony in cold, formal terms that align it with the great European tradition. Even so, almost since its first performance, it has come to be seen as a profoundly “American” piece.
There are at least two reasons why that’s so. First, in such earlier works as Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, Copland—even though he was a gay Jewish left-winger from Brooklyn—had, to a large extent, invented what came to be heard as the quintessentially American classical-music idiom, an idiom that became firmly associated with images of broad prairies and homespun values. Thus, to sound American, Copland didn’t need to borrow from American traditions; he only needed to sound like Copland. Second, the American tone is amplified by the incorporation—throughout the symphony, but most overtly in the finale—of his Fanfare for the Common Man, which, along with the Barber Adagio, is perhaps the most iconic of American classical pieces.
Yet at the same time, the Third does have the formal rigor of a European symphony. Put all that together, and you have what conductor Larry Loh calls “something like the American Beethoven Ninth. I don’t know if it’s pride or what, but it gives us the feeling that this is the American symphony, written by the greatest American composer, the one we think of as having defined American music.” If the Strauss brings you to tears, the Copland will bring you to cheers.
Our opening work, Black Iris (#metoo) (2017) by Reena Esmail (b. 1983), differs radically from those by Strauss and Copland both politically and aesthetically. To begin with the politics: As I’ve said, Strauss and Copland were prestigious artists trying to solidify (or reclaim) their positions in the canon. Reena, like other women composers, had no position in the canon to shore up—and Black Iris explicitly confronts the prejudices that contributed to women’s absence from concert programs. Her concern, however, was deeper than simply prejudice. She wrote Black Iris, she says, as the “#metoo movement was raging,” and she wrote it partly to expose the sexual abuse to which women composers were subject in the course of their education, abuse that she herself suffered. The piece was originally titled #metoo; and although she eventually retitled it to refer to a painting by Georgia O’Keefe, she made the change because she came to realize that hashtags were “ephemeral” and minimized the depth of the piece, not because she believed the problems had been overcome.
Black Iris thus grew out of anger. It’s not, however, the kind of anger you hear, say, in the second movement of the Shostakovich Tenth. Rather than a piece that makes the audience feel anger, she wrote the piece as a way to process her own anger. Like many women, she says, she had to keep “a lot under wraps” in order to work in a male-dominated field. “I didn’t feel comfortable expressing my anger directly.” The resulting frustration is expressed in a striking musical way: “The main theme is trying to come out, and it keeps getting dissuaded. Eventually there is this feeling that we are going to push through until we finally get this theme out into the world. That to me is like working through my own anger.”
A key moment comes about two-thirds of the way through. After what she calls a “roiling” passage—the most overtly angry part of the piece—there’s a moment of near silence. Then, in a coup de théâtre, the women in the orchestra sing a chord, joining in slowly, according to how long they have been members of the group. Over this stillness, we hear a gorgeous solo by the English horn, soon joined in conversation by the solo cello. From there, the work becomes increasingly luminous as the main theme blossoms and Black Iris works its way to the final measures. Reena says that she “always turns anger into a generative force”—and this transformative moment is a stunning example of her practice, one that you won’t soon forget.
As for the aesthetic dimension of her difference from Strauss and Copland: Both Strauss and Copland were trying to distil national traditions; Reena, as in most of her mature music, does the opposite, blurring borders by combining Western and Indian musical idioms. She came up with this stylistic approach while still a graduate student at Yale, as she tried to chart out her personal path as a composer. Since she was someone who “always believed in melody,” she was not comfortable with the atonal tradition that was dominant at the time. In fact, she had trouble composing until “music with tonal centers was being valued again.” But even then, she says, “I felt limited by the major and minor that was being offered. Imagine my delight when I realized that my own cultural tradition, Hindustani music, was rich in a way that helped me fill in the gaps of my own story and find my own sense of values.” Especially at a time of heightened ethnic conflict around the world, this harmonizing of profoundly different traditions serves as an inspiration.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Contact me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org
In the 2017-2018 season, Ms. Gruber appears as the soloist in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Symphoria in Syracuse, Handel’s Messiah with Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and Bach Society of St. Louis, Susanna in Victory Hall Opera’s innovative staging of Le nozze di Figaro in coordination with the Garden Club of Chicago, her fourth annual fundraising concert with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and Bach’s Cantata 140 “Wachet auf” and Haydn’s Creation, both with Glacier Symphony. Recent engagements include the Soprano solos in Handel’s Messiah with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, Winston-Salem Symphony and Richmond Symphony, Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with the Erie Philharmonic and Oklahoma City Philharmonic, recitals of Schubert/Beatles with New York Festival of Song at Lincoln Center, the Moab Music Festival and in Kansas City, Schubert’s “Auf dem Strom” with the noted Schubert on the Bluff series, and Musetta in La bohème with Pittsburgh Opera and the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra, Ms. Gruber’s return to Pittsburgh Opera to sing Despina in Così fan tutte and Zerlina in a new production of Don Giovanni, recitals for Boston Symphony Orchestra and LiveARTS series, a return to Arizona Opera to sing Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro; Pamina in Die Zauberflöte with Opera Tampa, her role début as Leïla in Les pêcheurs de perles with Hawaii Opera Theater, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with Omaha Symphony, a Christmas concert with Tallahassee Symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Buffalo Symphony, and a role début as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte with Florida Grand Opera.
Noted international performances include Händel’s Samson staged for De Nederlandse Opera, and First Niece in Peter Grimes at both the Saito Kinen Festival (Japan) and Maggio Musicale di Firenze. Further career highlights include her Lyric Opera of Chicago début as Alexandra in Regina; Lisette in La rondine and Miss Hedgehog in the world-première of Tobias Picker’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox with Los Angeles Opera; Carolina in Il matrimonio segreto, Aricie in Hippolyte et Aricie, and Varvara in Kát’a Kabanová with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis; Vixen in Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen at the Chautauqua Institution; Anne Trulove in The Rake’s Progress and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
Other notable engagements include Despina in Così fan tutte with Pittsburgh Opera, Berkshire Opera and Anchorage Opera; Norina in Don Pasquale with Opera Company of Philadelphia and Boston Lyric Opera; Gilda in Rigoletto with Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Connecticut Opera and Toledo Opera; Juliette in Roméo et Juliette with Opera Carolina and Chautauqua Opera; Gretel in Hänsel und Gretel with New York City Opera, Opera Columbus, Omaha Symphony, and for PBS Great Performances telecast from the Juilliard Opera Center.
An extremely sought-after and distinguished concert artist, Ms. Gruber has appeared with several esteemed symphony orchestras throughout her career, such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Houston Symphony Orchestra, Händel and Haydn Society, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, ProMusica Chamber Society, Boston Baroque, New York’s Collegiate Chorale, Pacific Symphony, North Carolina Symphony, Oklahoma City Philharmonic, Omaha Symphony, Winston-Salem Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, San Jose Symphony, Jacksonville Symphony, and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. With these organizations and many more, she has performed as a soloist in such works as Messiah, Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Handel’s Israel in Egypt, Haydn’s The Creation, Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Mozart’s Requiem, Telemann‘s dramatic cantata, Ino, Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock, Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras #5, Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, Handel’s Silete Venti, and with the New York City Ballet in Stravinsky’s Les noces. The winner of the 2005 Naumburg Competition, Ms. Gruber is in demand as a recitalist with appearances at New York’s Alice Tully Hall, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie, the 92nd Street Y, Miller Theater, Caramoor Festival, San Francisco Performances, Skaneateles Festival, New York Festival of Song, as well in recital at Palm Springs, Carmel, Pensacola, Pittsburgh and Kansas. She has given recitals across the country under the auspices of the Marilyn Horne Foundation. Other credits include a pre-concert recital of Copland’s Poems of Emily Dickinson with the New York Philharmonic, solo recitals in Salt Lake City and Daytona Beach, at Skidmore College, and on San Francisco Opera’s Schwabacher Début Recital Series.
Mr. Loh’s previous positions include: Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Syracuse Opera; Resident Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Music Director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra; Associate Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Associate Conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Denver Young Artists Orchestra.
Having a particular affinity for pops programming, Mr. Loh has been engaged for repeat performances with Chris Botti, Idina Menzel, Ann Hampton Callaway, the Texas Tenors and more. He has assisted John Williams on multiple occasions and conducted numerous sold-out John Williams tribute concerts. He is particularly adept at conducting concerts synchronizing live orchestral music with film, and he has lead Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Pixar in Concert, Disney in Concert, The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain, among other concert productions.
Mr. Loh is active as a guest conductor, both in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to annual concerts in Pittsburgh and Dallas, his recent engagements include the Boston Pops (Tanglewood); Detroit Symphony; San Diego Symphony; Seattle Symphony; Buffalo Philharmonic; and the Cathedral Choral Society at the Washington National Cathedral. Past engagements include the National (Washington D.C.), Indianapolis, Tacoma, Utah, Naples, Knoxville, Florida, El Paso, San Luis Obispo, Edmonton, Colorado, Charleston (SC), Malaysia, Daejeon (South Korea) and Greater Bridgeport Orchestras. His summer appearances include the festivals of Sun Valley, Bravo Vail Valley, Aspen (CO), Mann Center in Philadelphia, Breckenridge, Las Vegas, Hot Springs (AR), the Kinhaven Music School (VT) and the Performing Arts Institute (PA). In the summer of 2016, he made his debut at Tanglewood, conducting Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony with the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Orchestra and returned in 2017 to conduct the Boston Pops.
Mr. Loh received his Artist Diploma in Orchestral Conducting from Yale, his Masters in Choral Conducting from Indiana University and his BA, and Certificate of Management Studies, from the University of Rochester. Lawrence Loh was born in southern California of Korean parentage and raised in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He and his wife Jennifer have a son, Charlie, and a daughter, Hilary. Follow him on instagram @conductorlarryloh or twitter @lawrenceloh or visit his website, www.lawrenceloh.com.