MSO Soars In All-Strauss Show

The concert offered a remarkable variety of Richard Strauss’ works, and all brilliantly played.

By - Mar 2nd, 2015 01:29 pm
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Susan Babini, the principal cellist for MSO

Susan Babini, the principal cellist for MSO

Any time the music of Richard Strauss is on the bill, I get terribly excited. But a whole evening of Strauss sends me into paroxysms of pleasure. This past weekend, Edo de Waart and the myriad talents of the MSO were in full command of the virtuosity, style, and poise required for such a wonderful program.

Robert Levine. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Robert Levine. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Try thumbing through Strauss’s oeuvre looking for disparate examples of his compositions and you’d be hard pressed to find three more distinctly different pieces in his repertoire than the Metamorphosen, TrV 290 for twenty-three solo strings; the Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra, TrV 292; and the tone poem/cello concerto, Don Quixote, TrV 184, Opus 35.

The program opened with the Metamorphosen, a work of profound depth and emotion. Normally the orchestra musicians warm up on stage, right up to the time they tune. For this work, I am thankful the orchestra cleared the stage for a few moments to create a buffer of silence before the solo string players entered, quietly tuned, and got down to the business of tearing the audience’s heart out.

Strauss composed this work at the end of World War II; it is a deeply moving elegy to the destruction of German culture in the indiscriminate and relentless jaws of war. The piece is influenced by the counterpoint of Bach and composed around a fragment of thematic material from the funeral march of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. Beethoven’s music can certainly be seen here as a metaphor for the height of the Germanic cultural experience. The poignant use of the fragment—juxtaposed against the searing pain of lines that stretch out with heartfelt longing only to clash in dissonance—aptly describes the sorrow Strauss felt as war left devastation in its path and obliterated the things he held dear.

William Helmers. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

William Helmers. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Every musician had a solo moment that contributed to the whole, and it was wonderful to hear such a high level of artistry from string players whose voices are most often a blended part of the string choir. What a rich string section the MSO has. Clear, beautiful solo sounds, rhythmic precision and top-notch intonation were all present. De Waart’s conducting pushed the music in a way that kept the relentless phrases in motion without hurrying the music. This intense piece of music deserves the listener’s undivided attention and understanding, and should be heard more than once. There is exceptional emotional weight within the bars of this masterpiece. Indeed, it would be daring to isolate this piece in a program all its own and, since I’m fantasizing here now, perform it without applause. But back to reality: The MSO’s strings delivered an emotionally satisfying performance of this great work.

Next came the Concerto in D Major for Oboe, on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from the first work. Acrobatic and cheerful, the oboe concerto weaves and wends its way across long lyrical lines that show the oboe in an operatic light. Principal oboist Katherine Young Steele played the extended aria-like lines with confidence and technical aplomb. The tender, bucolic second movement was most fetching, and all throughout the piece she traded charmingly played phrases with her colleagues on the flute, English horn, clarinet, and bassoons.

Finally, the orchestra performed Don Quixote. A Strauss tone poem is always an opportunity for showing off various sections and individuals in the orchestra, and de Waart’s ability to pull such high-quality playing from this performance was impressive. Arpeggiating horns rolled powerfully across the musical landscape; unison trumpet and trombone fanfares rang, chillingly accurate and in tune; and powerful low brass snarled, driving the battle scenes with convincing strength. Muted brasses bleated like a field of sheep. Great piety and charm exuded from the bassoons, and the new associate principal oboe player, Kevin Pearl, knocked it out of the park with sweet sound and a full palette of colors and dynamics.

Kirk Ferguson. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Kirk Ferguson. Photo courtesy of the MSO.

Yes, the orchestra sounded great, but the stars of the show were the character of Don Quixote, as played by MSO principal cellist Susan Babini, and the sidekick Sancho Panza, musically represented by the formidable team of principal violist Robert Levine, bass clarinetist William Helmers and tenor tuba player Kirk Ferguson. Levine has a wonderfully warm viola sound, and he plays with character and complete command of his instrument; and the duo of Helmers and Ferguson gave the most compelling performance of Sancho I’ve heard.

Truly, this was an amazing performance, inspiring waves of awe and delight. Which brings me to Babini. Her athleticism and virtuosity are staggering. She plays with such ferocious passion that the temperature in the hall goes up appreciably, but that isn’t the best of what she offers—Babini plays with such tender musicality that I sat listening thinking, yes, that is exactly how this piece should sound. Along with everything else in this concert that was so good, Babini was simply brilliant.

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