May 1 - Hair-Raising

Finished (for now, anyway) Music History: Volume Four, Late 20th- / 21st-Century Music and went to press.

Wrote up Marin Symphony for Commuter Times, but have given it over to Phillip George for 21st-Century Music, June 2007, below...

Three Strauss Moods

Alasdair Neale conducts the Marin Symphony in Richard Strauss's Wind Serenade, Ein Heldenleben, and Four Last Songs (with Rebecca Evans). Marin Veterans Auditorium, San Rafael, CA.

Aristotle thought, these days quite obviously, that everything had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And so it is with composers, many of whose life's works can be neatly divided into early, mid, and late periods. This was shown yet again on April 29, in a nice program on Richard Strauss, given by the Marin Symphony at Veterans Memorial Hall.

The stereotype is that an individual begins brash, reaches a pinnacle of excellence, and then tapers into an acceptance, mellowness, resignation vis-Ã -vis life, the universe, and everything. Strauss, like many of us, pretty much reflects this. His early Serenade for Winds in E-Flat Major, Opus 7, shows a promising young man poised for greatness, and here the 13 players, consisting of a pumped up "woodwind quintet" (i.e. flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and the interloping brass of French horns), enacted the work with requisite sparkle.

The main thrust of the evening's event was Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), which acknowledges that youthful arrogance was far from lost in mid-life. The composer, at the top of his game, brings us a now-classic soaring motif (for no less than nine hornists, in addition to cellos, appropriately rendered heroically in this performance) for "The Hero" -- pretty obviously himself. "The Hero's Adversaries," which follows directly in this six-movement symphonic poem (amounting to a symphony, really) played without pause, just as directly references Strauss's, by this point, many critics, who are Hector Berliozianly revenge-characterized by delightfully cackling woodwinds and stern (parallel fifth pedant!) low brass.

This was a performance that engaged the ear with every turn, and if Strauss gets a bit carried away in this Walt Whitmanesque celebration of self, Music Director Alasdair Neale and accomplices let him get away with it to the fullest. "The Hero's Companion" (a love song to Strauss's wife, Pauline de Anha) was tenderly caressed by solo violinist and concertmaster Jeremy Constant, and the offstage trumpeters made their telling effect in "The Hero's Battlefield." Both "The Hero's Works of Peace" and "The Hero's Escape from the World and his Fulfillment" contain references to our hero's earlier compositions, such as Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Death and Transfiguration, and Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra, with its well-known do-sol-do opening re-popularized in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). This collage-like 1898 writing, along with the caterwauling chaos of the critics' music, which returns at several junctures, signals Strauss as a composer on the cusp of contemporary thought on the crisp of the last century.

Would it have been. Strauss's 20th-century work in opera, concerto, and art song remains brilliant. But the mellowing of age, which began at least in the neoclassicism of Der Rosenkavalier, is totally realized in the Four Last Songs, beautifully, glowingly, and sumptuously rendered in that good night by soprano Rebecca Evans. "Beim Schlafengehn" ("Going to Sleep") is the title of the third of three Herman Hesse poems, and perhaps some of us took that too literally, but by the final movement, on Joseph von Eichendorff's "Im Abendrot" ("In Evening"), who could resist the moving last quotation from Transfiguration in this transfigured night?