The Orchestra Now under the baton of Leon Botstein delivered a program music on The Romantic Hero last Saturday night at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater. All three works of the evening were introduced by students who had clear diction, knew how to use a microphone, and were adept at giving informal information with witty twist.
They opened with Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerun” in Humperdinck’s arrangement. I can only take Wagner in small doses and this was a lively opening because the orchestra played with tighter unity than the previous semester. There was remarkable improvement in the string section and the horns were as good as ever. Here the brass section with Dan Honaker on tuba rose the hair on the back of my neck. Botstein led the orchestra to a superb climax and concluded with the elusively emphatic wow-factor at the end of the winding journey.
In the summer of 1876 Tchaikovsky stopped in Bayreuth to hear Wagner’s Ring cycle and transmitted astonishment and admiration in his letters as he then raced back to Russia. The week before Tchaikovsky arrived in Bayreuth he was on a train to Paris on July 27 and he penned a letter to Modest Mussorgsky declaring his desire to write a symphonic poem on Dante Alighieri’s fifth canto (well, he accidentally wrote fourth canto) of the Inferno. (There is no telling what people will read on trains then or now; as Freud observed, trains can be an erotic experience.)
Tchaikovsky lent his subjectivity, emotionalism, and sexual guilt into realizing in music that vivid Romantic situation of two lovers meeting their eternal doom. Kyle Anderson on cello was magnificent in the opening notes and throughout this symphonic poem. Flutes and strings conjured up heated winds that separated the longing lovers with Otherworldly intensity. The clarinets and bassoon worked overtime. And those delightful horns from hell! Students transmitted the frustrated energy of tormenting lust. I felt like swooning like Dante swoons at the end of the canto. (Longfellow’s translation captures this effect best.)
The main course was Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life, 1898), composed immediately after Don Quixote. Since Strauss thought that his life was as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander the Great, why not write autobiography? The main themes are Strauss as hero of Romantic music, his chameleon wife, war, and peace. Strauss’ wife is personified in first violin played by Concertmaster Sophia Bernitz, who gave an adept performance in the nearly six-minute solo that argued in enigmatic bird-like fashion with the orchestra to light comic effect, finally excelling in virtuosity with deep emotional lyricism at the pathos and resignation of the finale.
The blustery blare of the war passage is often condemned by critics as repetitious bombast, yet Botstein excavated a satirically edged twist that reminded me of Shostakovich. The concluding peace was so satisfying that I left with hardly a care in the world—some of the items rattling around in my head were healed and coalesced into solution, which is one of the healing acts of good music well-played, even if your mind wanders off the program for a minute.
For the conductor, Ein Heldenleben is something of labyrinth of soundscape and varied rhythms of Strauss’ life, since the composition is laden with self-quotation from many of his masterpieces. Here Strauss invented Post-Modernism ahead of its time. The hero’s theme deflects into a minor mode that all listeners can identify with. There’s a witty yet humble perversity to this extravagant work. I’ve heard Ein Heldenleben a couple of times before at Sosnoff Theater but this performance by Botstein and TŌN was indelibly more memorable.