Scaling The Spectacular Heights Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony Receives Its BPO Premiere, Jan Jezioro, Artvoice

Richard Strauss completed his final tone poem, Ein Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 “An Alpine Symphony”, in 1915. Somewhat surprisingly, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of “An Alpine Symphony”, under the baton of its music director JoAnn Falletta, will be an orchestra premiere on its season finale concerts on Saturday June 4 at 8pm and Sunday June 5 at 2:30pm.

The performance will be accompanied by projected images of the Alps as photographed and assembled into what he calls a Symphony in Images, by the German photographer and cellist Tobias Melle. The goal of Melle is to make the audible visible, as he has noted: “The fusion of my photography with the music of great symphonic compositions results in a unique audio-visual work of art. With the aid of digital projectors, Symphony in Images enables the audience simultaneously to hear with its eyes and see with its ears. The images are synchronized live: this means that they fit perfectly and naturally with the playing of the musicians”. Melle has enjoyed great popular success with his photographic interpretations of symphonies by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak during live performances in both Europe and America.

Richard Strauss earned his reputation as a composer, first in Europe and then internationally, through his wonderfully original tone poems for orchestra. Beginning with “Don Juan” in 1888, and continuing through an increasingly ambitious and successful series that included “Death and Transfiguration”, “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”, “Also sprach Zarathustra, “Don Quixote Ein Heldenleben” and “Symphonia Domestica”, Strauss’ popular tone poems are among the most frequently programmed orchestral works, with one notable exception. Although Strauss designates his Opus 64 as a “symphony”, the “Alpine Symphony” is not composed in the traditional four-movement symphonic form, but it is rather a tone poem, consisting of twenty-two continuous sections of music, written for a vastly augmented orchestra, one of the reasons, no doubt, that the work is one of the very least performed of his tone poems.

Strauss had started sketching drafts of “An Alpine Symphony” in 1899, but he put them aside, concentrating instead on his skyrocketing career as an opera composer. Upon learning in 1911 of the death of his good friend Gustav Mahler, Strauss noted in his journal: “The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist is a grave loss” and he resumed work on “An Alpine Symphony” which he intended to be a two-part work titled “Der Antichrist: Eine Alpensinfonie”, with the new part named after an essay by Nietzsche written in 1888.  Strauss eventually abandoned the idea of a second part, and called his single-movement work, which he finished early in 1915, simply An Alpine Symphony.

BPO music director JoAnn Falletta has previously performed an Alpine Symphony, leading her other orchestra, the Virginia Symphony, at the Virginia Festival of the Arts in 2013. About that performance Falletta noted that “In Strauss’ inspired and monumental masterpiece, ‘An Alpine Symphony’, he calls upon all of his supreme powers of orchestral wizardry to create his largest work — an evocative description of a mountain and the beauty and danger encountered in scaling its heights. Strauss had a very memorable mountain-climbing experience as a boy, and he recreates that adventure in music of gigantic proportions – requiring an orchestra of over 115 people and including such exotic instruments as a thunder sheet, cowbells and a wind machine. The music is overwhelming in its scope and gorgeous in its romantic extravagance. And if such sonic beauty weren’t enough, we will have corresponding images projected above the orchestra. Not only will you hear the magnificence and terror of an Alpine climb, you will be dazzled by the striking photo-choreography of sunrise, waterfalls, glaciers, alpine meadows thunderstorms and many more brilliant images. This is truly an once-in-a-lifetime experience to ‘live the music of this great work with eyes and ears”.

Born in Lackawanna in 1972, composer Ron Gardner completed his studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA in 1996. He composed his “Sanctuary of the Soul” as a gift for JoAnn Falletta and the BPO. About his new work, the composer says “Sanctuary of the Soul celebrates Eliel Saarinen’s inspired architectural vision for Kleinhans Music Hall while illuminating the shared listening experience of concert goers. As a point of reference, an aerial view of the concert hall resembles a cello, which serves as the featured solo instrument in the music; and the cello’s melody seeks to emulate Saarinen’s unique use of curvilinear interiors and exteriors in the structure. Strings open the piece, representing the excitement and pleasure of the patrons upon arrival in the lobby. A crescendo follows which portrays the first sight of the grand canopy upon entering the concert hall. A contemplative cello solo implies a hush of anticipation before the orchestral sound fills the stage, as the music builds and expands with winds and brass; their melodies convey a mutual delight, finishing with a triumphant, unified homage to the architect, conductor, musicians and patrons”.

It would be safe to say that this program is infused with the world of nature, as it also includes the BPO premiere of a third piece, “In the Tatra Mountains, Op.26, Symphonic Poem” by Czech composer Vítezslav Novak (1870-1949). Composed in 1902, the lushly written work was inspired by Novak’s journeys in the magnificent Tatra mountain range between the border of Czechoslovakia and Poland.