PREVIEW: Tchaikovsky and Strauss with the KC Symphony
Christoph von Dohnanyi is one of the finest conductors of our time, and during his long association with the Cleveland Orchestra, he has taken under his wing many aspiring young musicians, one of which was Michael Stern, now the music director of the Kansas City Symphony. This weekend the local audience will hear music under the baton of von Dohnanyi himself.
The program features three quite different masterpieces, each of them unique in its own way. Opening the program is Alfred Schnittke’s 1985 (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, composed in response to a Salzburg Festival invitation to write a piece based upon the works of William Shakespeare. Schnittke’s composition was puckishly entitled (K)ein Sommernachtstraum. Kein means “not” in German, so we have (Not) a Summer Night’s Dream. Schnittke’s music is among the most accessible of modern composers, and the piece is an illustration of good fun. And despite the composer’s denial, it seems to be based very much on Shakespeare. In the words of writer Grant Hiroshima for the Los Angeles Philharmonic:
“Do we hear the loveable buffoon Bottom’s tongs and bones, metal and bone instruments for banging together, in the big marching band jollity of the middle episode, along with what sounds like the distinct braying of an ass? And isn’t it something like Theseus’ ‘iron tongue of midnight’ which we hear bringing the action to a close with a return of that innocent opening tune, slightly and permanently altered?”
Second on von Dohnanyi’s program is a similar piece of light heartedness, Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiel’s Merry Pranks. It is one of the classic tone poems that Strauss wrote in the 1890’s before undertaking his serious operatic career, and is the most lighthearted of the group (the others include Don Juan and the imposing Solche Sprach Zarathustra of “2001: A Space Odyssey” fame). Based upon the adventures of the Germanic peasant folk hero Till Eulenspiel, the piece opens with a “Once upon a time” theme, progresses through musical depictions of Till’s various pranks and misadventures, then ends tragically with the comic being beheaded for blasphemy. But instead of ending on a down note, after a moment the piece quickly repeats the “Once upon a time” theme and launches forth in a sprightly manner again, illustrating that a merry nature can never die.
The third number on the Symphony’s program has no such happy resolution, however, for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (the “Pathetique”) is one of the most forlorn and depressing works in the repertoire, notwithstanding some truly gorgeous melodies and masterful orchestral writing. Tchaikovsky died a mere eight days after the premiere, probably by his own hand, and many consider this to be his farewell to life. Unusually, the piece has a bang-up ending for the third movement, which often leads an audience to applaud, thinking that the piece has ended. But then comes the slow, morose final movement, with the number ending in a desperate whimper. Tough stuff. Bring the Kleenex.
Tchaikovsky and Strauss
Kansas City Symphony
Friday, March 2 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, March 3 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, March 4 at 2:00 p.m.
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
1601 Broadway, Kansas City, MO
For tickets call 816-471-0400 or online at www.kcsymphony.org