Celebrate HRO's radiant season with Strauss, Sibelius, and Ligeti

by Victoria Aschheim

This evening at 8pm in Sanders Theatre, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra performs the final concert of its 202nd season! Join us for a program of Richard Strauss, Jean Sibelius, and Györgi Ligeti, under the direction of Federico Cortese.Amazingly, Richard Strauss (1864-1949) turned to the subject of Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung) at the age of twenty-five. He conducted the premiere himself of this tone poem for large orchestra, Opus 24, on June 21, 1890 in Eisenbach, a composition that illustrates his great gift for virtuosic orchestration. "Death and Transfiguration" is a portrayal of a misunderstood artist who had striven toward the very highest artistic standards – seeking and finding immortality – which may have been a path Strauss himself sought. But Strauss explained the composition in quite straightforward terms: "It was an idea like any other. Probably the musical need, after Macbeth which begins and ends in D minor and Don Juan which begins and ends in E minor – to write a piece that begins in C minor and finished in C major."The listener can hear the dying artist’s breathing as orchestrated in string instruments; his memories are depicted by flute, oboe, and violin. The music goes on to portray, in Strauss’s terms, the artist finding "gloriously achieved in Eternity all that for which he struggled on earth."Richard Bratby has written of Death and Transfiguration, "Strauss tells his tale in the most gorgeous orchestral colours, but with such gusto that you have to wonder: a brilliantly ambitious and gifted 25 year old with musical Europe at his feet – how pre-occupied with Death could he really be?... and crowning a tragic minor-key work with a stirring major-key finish was the oldest trick in the Romantic book. German philosophy has never been so entertaining…Strauss himself never really took his tongue out of his cheek.Sixty years later, as he lay on his sickbed, Strauss whispered to his daughter-in-law, ‘Dying is exactly as I composed it in Death and Transfiguration.’"Below, watch some of my favorite parts of Death and Transfiguration. The first clip features a solo by concertmaster Foster Wang '10, the second clip captures the delicate, lilting oboe solo by Jonathan Bragg '10, accompanied by the light yet regal chime of the harp, and the third clip, one of the work's glowing, climactic moments. [http://www.youtube.com/v/ho0YN__egWs&hl=en_US&fs=1&] [http://www.youtube.com/v/-oxMdOsD_3U&hl=en_US&fs=1&] [http://www.youtube.com/v/JfhsA_ASeUg&hl=en_US&fs=1&] Also on HRO's program tonight is Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 82, by Jean Sibelius, one of the great late Romantic symphonies. It is the Fifth Symphony that is the pivotal point in Sibelius’s compositional life. James Hepokoski has written that -- as with Strauss -- the Fifth’s centrality to Sibelius's oeuvre invites the pondering of difficult historical problems, such as the fact of the composer "facing, but then apparently renouncing, the most advanced ‘state of the musical material of his time.’ By the period of the Fifth Symphony this included, most prominently, the aggressive ‘emancipation of the dissonance,’" writes Hepokoski. Sibelius’s work can be placed as part of the larger ‘modern’ wave of European composers that included Elgar, Puccini, Mahler, Strauss, and others, Hepokoski points out. Hepokoski also notes that "Sibelius’s ‘modern-classical’ aim seems to have been to clench his teeth and forge a more compact, harder-edged music than that of the two leading modernists, Strauss and (especially) Mahler."Thus Maestro Cortese presents a keenly crafted juxtaposition in programming Sibelius and Strauss on the same program. Where Symphony No. 5 of Sibelius has a finely-chiseled, three-movement structure focused on "building tension" and drawing ever-bigger motivic "circles," in a form that was "not the most obvious" to composers at the time of the Symphony's creation, as Maestro Cortese has described to us in rehearsal, Death and Transfiguration represents a tone-poem that fluidly unifies different scenes -- mini-movements, so to speak -- into one work that blazingly traverses virtually every emotion possible.And finally, below, watch a preview of Ligeti's Concert Romanesc. At the concert tonight, be sure to listen to the clarinet cadenza played by Stefan Botarelli '12 (you can see him in this video too). Concert Romanesc by György Ligeti, a Hungarian Jew born in Transylvania (now part of Romania), was banned by the Hungarian Communist government after its first rehearsal and was not to be heard again until 1971. Ligeti himself fled Hungary in 1956 after the Communist invasion of the country. For Concert Romanesc, Ligeti recalled the folk music of his youth and imaginatively and inventively built upon it "in the spirit of village bands." Performed without pause, Concert Romanesc is a twelve-minute composition in two parts, each part being divided into two further movements culminating exuberantly. [http://www.youtube.com/v/kja-MPeMRBY&hl=en_US&fs=1&] It has been a great joy for me to bring you behind-the-scenes with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra this year. HRO has been beloved to me over my four years at Harvard, and I hope you have come to know the ensemble better through my posts. HRO is a unique arts organization on the Harvard campus, with its members giving a significant time commitment in personal practicing, as well as two evenings a week of HRO rehearsal to provide the university with its own symphony orchestra. HRO is part of the heart and soul of Harvard, and indeed of the Boston/Cambridge music scene. So do join us tonight at 8pm in Sanders Theatre!Photos and video by Victoria Aschheim

[Caption: Listen for the heart-gripping, clarion brass...]

[Caption: the vigorous basses...]

[Caption: and the glistening harps...]