Knoxville Symphony Orchestra highlights German composers
by Alan Sherrod
Richard Wagner was certainly prone to personal embellishment. In his autobiography, Mein Leben, Wagner wrote about his â“Prelude to Die Meistersinger von NÃ¼rnbergâ”: â“I proceeded to write down the prelude exactly as it appears today in the score, that is, containing the clear outlines of the leading themes of the whole drama â the remaining scenes to follow in due succession.â” If we take him at his word, it is evidence of genius that Wagner, who has never been accused of brevity, could present the operaâ’s thematic outline so perfectly in prelude form, then remain loyal to it through six years of composition as the opera grew to almost five hours of music.
The Wagner â“Preludeâ” is an ideal opener for an all-orchestral program, both for the audience and the orchestra. The consummate operatic prelude, it features the bold, diatonic guild procession in the homophonic brass and strings, the themes of the love story and the â“Prize Song,â” then combines them all in an intricate counterpoint, ending with the rousing, majestic march. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestraâ’s Orchestral Showcase this weekend will present the â“Preludeâ” alongside Richard Straussâ’s tone poem Don Juan and Franz Schubertâ’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major (â“The Greatâ”).
One purpose of such a challenging orchestral program is to feature sections and soloists from within the ensemble. Maestro Lucas Richmanâ’s program choices will certainly accomplish that. Straussâ’s Don Juan, which premiered in Weimar in 1889 with the composer conducting, cemented the 24-year-old Straussâ’s reputation as the most important German composer to appear since Wagner.
The young Strauss based his Don Juan not on Byronâ’s epic poem or any of the other often-read versions, but on the unfinished poetic drama by the Austro-Hungarian poet Nikolaus Lenau. Lenauâ’s Don Juan is a dreamer who is searching for an elusive Romantic ideal. To that end, Strauss conveys several episodes of the differing qualities and characters of the women his protagonist conquers. With a trumpet note and descending strings, Don Juan meets his ineluctable fate as the avenging brother of one of his conquests runs him through with a sword.
Straussâ’s Don Juan offers a wealth of color and texture, as well as beautiful solo passages, particularly for the oboe. But it also makes extraordinary technical demands on several sections of the orchestra. Conscious of this, Strauss wrote after the premiere: â“Certainly the horns blew without fear of death. ... I was really quite sorry for the wretched horns and trumpets. They were quite blue in the face, the whole affair was so strenuous.â”
As if the horn section will not have been busy enough with Don Juan, Richman will be calling on them for the opening phrase of Franz Schubertâ’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major (â“The Greatâ”) to begin the second half of the concert. Schubert aspired to the legacy of Beethoven, and in terms of scale, style, and design, he succeeded in his â“Greatâ” symphony just as his predecessor did. In the fourth movement, there is even a tiny hint, perhaps unconscious, of â“Ode to Joyâ” from Beethovenâ’s Ninth.
Schubertâ’s Ninth is also great in the exhausting demands made on the string section. Although the score was presented to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna in 1826 for a possible performance, it was apparently turned away because of its length and difficulty. The symphony eventually premiered in Leipzig in 1839, 11 years after Schubertâ’s early death, under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn.
What: Knoxville Symphony Orchestraâ’s Orchestral Showcase
When: Thursday, Oct. 18, 8 p.m. And Friday, Oct. 19, 8 p.m.
Where: Tennessee Theatre
How Much: $10-$78
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