Well, 'tis September, which means that you've once again frittered away an entire summer dreaming up new and exiting uses for leftover tofu. It also means that Maestro Tchivzhel and his merry mob of motley musicians are rested and ready for a new season of great music. And once again, I am honored to be your humble (mis)guide. I do hope that you will take the opportunity to attend one or more of the Grand Series concerts at the Embassy Theatre or one of the many other Philharmonic performances this season. If legal tender (or a lack thereof) is a problem for you, ask for a "rush" ticket about a half-hour before the performance. You'll be surprised at how affordable these tickets can be, and the climb to the top of the Embassy is an excellent workout for the ol' cardiovascular system. But enough of this drivel! Let's begin, shall we?

Two of the pieces on the roster are by the great Romantic Russian composer Tchaikovsky. His music is lush, sweeping, goes straight at the heart. The two pieces played this weekend are his rendition of Shakespeare's Hamlet, a mighty and enjoyable piece, and Capriccio Italien, written during a visit to Rome in 1880. The Italien opens with a fanfare reportedly based on the bugle calls of a calvary regiment whose barracks were near his hotel (and you thought being woken up by the maid was bad!), continues on to a series of lush Italian folk melodies, switches to a march, and ends with a tarantella. Not that kind of tarantella. This kind is a frenzied folk dance and a very nice end to this lively piece. But enough of Tchaikovsky. The Philharmonic will be playing more of his works later on in the season. Besides, it's now time for...

Strauss. Richard Strauss, to be exact (not to be confused with the two J. Strauss's who wrote all those waltzes... the words flow like poetry from my fingers). Richard Strauss was born in 1864, just as the American Civil War was ending. Not that he was in any danger, wisely being born in Munich, Germany, far from the front. His father was a french horn player who gave his son plenty of musical training. Perhaps because of this early exposure to mass amounts of horn, Strauss's compositions are extremely horn-heavy. Not that the horn players mind. Heck, they love his work because they can finally cut loose on some astoundingly difficult and beautiful horn solos. It's the other members of the orchestra who seem to mind (two words: spit valve). Strauss composed his music after a fellow German named Wagner "revolutionized" the world of music, compelling Strauss to say, "From now on, there will be no aimless phrase-making... and no more symphonies!" Whatever grudge he held against the symphonic form, Strauss was true to his word and never wrote a single one. Instead he wrote tone poems, large orchestral works that tell a story with music alone. You may recognize some of his more famous tone poems: Don Juan, Don Quixote, and the awkward, stumbling Don Knotts (well, perhaps not the last one). Actually, he was very good at being able to create an image with music... and he knew it. Strauss once boasted, "I can translate ANYTHING into a sound. With my music, I can describe what it sounds like to pick up your spoon and fork from one side of your plate and lay them down on the other side." Yeah, but will it have a beat you can dance to? During his life, he was better known for his conducting skills, skills that made him rich and famous. One has to wonder (well, as least I have to wonder... that's what I get paid for) why he was so sought after. It seems his conducting lacked a little zest for he would conduct while sitting down, sober and expressionless, his baton moving lazily through the air, his left hand in the pocket of his waistcoat. Didn't even break a sweat. As a young pup, he wrote a piece called Death and Transfiguration. Sixty years later, at the age of 85, as he lay on his deathbed, the ever-humble Ricky said, "Death is just as I wrote it." Don't you just hate a smart-alek?

Unless your name is Zarathustra (I'll explain later), you've heard the opening piece on this weekend's Philharmonic Opening Night, incidentally by Richard Strauss (even I am amazed by the coincidence). The piece is Also Sprach Zarathustra. "Also what?" you collectively ask. Strauss based this piece on the mammoth poem by Friedrich Nietzsche of the same name. In this poem, Zarathustra (it's later) is a mountain hermit who has never seen humanity. He wakes up one morning, emerges from his tastefully decorated Home and Caverns cave and goes down the mountain to see the world. He finds only madness and insanity. A real "up-with-people" story. Stanley Kubrick liked it so much that he used it as the theme music to his film "2001: A Space Odyssey". You might have read something about this little indie film in the trade journals a while back. While Strauss didn't create an exact "spoon and fork" representation of the story, he did try to capture the spirit of the poem, one of birth and renewal. The result is simply beyond words. Parts are staggeringly powerful (such as the exciting ape-pounding opening that everyone knows), while other parts are tender, passionate and sweet. Sometimes the orchestra plays as a single, thundering unit, while other times it breaks into small and intimate groups. You can't catch everything in this piece in just a few listens. Strauss's masterful command of orchestration is easily heard in this work. There are frequent changes in instrumentation, pacing, and musical color. Even if you have never heard the complete work, you will not get bored. It is only of those rare pieces that is very rewarding with very little effort on the part of the listener, drawing you in, filling your mind with brilliant, dramatic images (though not of week-old tofu). The piece is in nine sections, starting with "Sunrise" (a.k.a. ape-pounding) and ending with the "Night Wanderer's Song", a quiet, magical passage that quietly swells and wanes, creating an ethereal, fairly tale ending to this magnificent must-hear piece. Ever want to know more about this guy?

Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman

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