I have to admire the marketing. If you can’t get the general public to know Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, it’s possible they’ll know of 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if that means they’ll only know about the 90 seconds or so of that piece of music. By any other name, it’s a magnificent piece of music, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra did justice to it.
This was the lineup for last night’s concert.
Jakub Hrůša conducts
Vilde Frang, violin
The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca
Also sprach Zarathustra
One of the cool things about a show like this is that I discover new things as much as I learn more about that which is already familiar. In the case of Bohuslav Martinů, I have never heard of this composer, though I definitely want to now. The frescoes in question that are the subject of his work are pieces that I’m moderately familiar with from art school way back when, and the refresher course was welcome. They are part of Piero della Francesca’s cycle The History of the True Cross, located in the church of San Francesco in the Tuscan town of Arezzo. There are nine of them total, I believe, and based on the three he put to music, I would love to have heard what he could do with the others. This is one of those cases where knowing the inspiration behind the music adds so much to the music itself. You wouldn’t think that would be necessary, and it isn’t for the pure enjoyment of it. But to know what you’re listening to does elevate the experience in more ways than one.
The frescoes in question are part of Piero della Francesca’s cycle The History of the True Cross, located in the church of San Francesco in the Tuscan town of Arezzo.
The first fresco is The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood, kneeling in supplication when she learns the bridge in front of the temple is made from wood of the same tree as the True Cross.
The second is The Dream of Constantine. It depicts Constantine on the eve of battle, wherein an angel reveals to him the sign of the Cross that will lead him to victory.
The third is The Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau. The Cross played a role in battles during the war between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid Empire in the early 7th century.
The music is mystical in nature, lending itself to an eerie sense of the sweep of history through this story. You can hear when Sheba makes the connection and drops to her knees. You can hear the angel whispering in Constantine’s ear. The third movement feels more like a film score. All in all, I was impressed by this.
Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto is a technical wonder. By his own admission, it’s the best piece he ever wrote. It’s based on the Spanish Civil War, so there’s a rhythm that underscores much of the piece that feels very Spanish. You’d know it as soon as you heard it. The piece itself requires a virtuoso to play it. The violin is almost constantly in motion, and the high end range of what the piece requires is so incredibly fragile that in the hands of anyone less than a virtuoso, it will crack and fall apart at the slightest provocation. Vilde Frang played it flawlessly, and with all of the passion that Britten poured into it as inspired by his subject. Some pieces wow you with technical skill, others overpower you with emotion. This one does both at the same time. That said, as amazing as it was, I feel like it could also have been half as long. I tend to feel this way with a great many concerti, even if I’m impressed by the sheer endurance required to perform them. It’s just a personal preference, and not one I can readily explain. Most (but not all) concerti, in my opinion, simply do not warrant the full time allotted to them. This one is not one I’d want to listen to often, but to see it being performed was just stunning to watch. That alone was worth the price of admission, regardless of what I feel about the piece itself.
After intermission, we arrived at the monster. And make no mistake, this piece is a monster. Based on Frederick Nietzsche’s work of the same name, Also sprach Zarathustra takes a mere handful of Nietzsche’s work and sets it to music as a powerful struggle of man (B chord) vs. nature (C chord). The chords when broken up into the individual notes are the same tones used for cathedral bells. Much to my surprise (though I should have expected it), there was one such large bell right there on stage.
As I said earlier, most people only know the first 90 seconds or so of this piece, which is magnificent beyond words to finally hear live. I don’t know why I never put this together before, but that deep rumble that’s heard as the piece opens, and at other points in the struggle, is that of the pipe organ. I’ve not heard a recording of this yet that’ll match what I heard last night. To hear this live is to sit in awe at the eye of the hurricane and bear witness to majesty as instrumental power courses through you. My understanding is that violinists look at this piece as a concerto for them, because there is much to offer for the leads. I think that’s probably being a bit egocentric given the size of the orchestra needed to play the full piece, especially in the number of bass instruments. Aside from the addition of a full choir for Beethoven’s 9th, I’ve never seen that many performers on the DSO stage before, and each section got to shine as the three-note motif was passed effortlessly like a wave throughout.
Though there are several movements, the piece takes only one pause in the 7th movement as nature declares its dominance, followed by the hush that speaks volumes. It’s the sort of thing Mahler’s known for, and here’s Strauss beating him to it by decades. Then the meek sound of man pops up as though cringing behind a rock. I often think of Gollum right there for some reason. The final movement ends in an anticlimactic whimper by comparison of the opening, or perhaps merely a calm resignation, as man fades off and nature gets in the last, barely stated word.
I won’t say the power of this piece trumped the performance of The Pines of Rome. That one is a showstopper in the truest sense of the word. Nor will I say it even competed with Carmina Burana. But in terms of a pure declaration of power, it stood in that concert hall as a potential rival to Beethoven’s 5th at its strongest moments. Beethoven still laughs, but I’m sure he appreciates the attempt. Wagner’s influence is most definitely written all over this work. I’ve heard the opening of this piece many, many times in my life, and I’ve listened to handful of different recordings over the years of the full piece, but I’m just not as familiar with it on the whole. We all have pieces like that, I think, where we know certain movements better than others. Hearing this live gives me a far greater appreciation. I will certainly listen to it more actively going forward than I have in the past.
I have to give props to the guest conductor, Jakub Hrůša. You could feel his passion for the music. At one point you could see it as he leaped off the podium. He knew he had a world class orchestra, and he was most definitely proud to show what this music was capable of being.
One more week, and I’ll be back again for a double bill of Rachmaninoff.