Friday, March 24 , 2017, 3:27 am | Fair 48º


Gerald Carpenter: With Rachleff at the Helm, Festival Orchestra Sails Into Summer

The Music Academy of the West's 2014 Summer Festival began, as have many memorable festivals past, with a Solo Piano Masterclass led by the ever-youthful Jerome Lowenthal. A week of such star-studded masterclasses has ensued.

Jay Friedman
Chicago Symphony trombonist Jay Friedman will conduct his own arrangement of An Alpine Symphony.

Now it is time for the opening performance — the debut, as it were — of this year's miracle, the Festival Orchestra. Its re-birthday celebration will be conducted, for the seventh year in a row, by the dynamic Larry Rachleff, with an assist from Chicago Symphony principal trombonist Jay Friedman, who will conduct one work on the program — his own arrangement for brass of Richard Strauss’ 1914 tone poem, An Alpine Symphony, Opus 64.

The rest of the concert — which takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday in the reborn Lobero Theatre at 33 E. Canon Perdido St. — will consist of Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 in D-Major, Opus 25 "Classical" (1917) and Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D-Major, Opus 36 (1802).

What a rousing curtain-raiser! If our enthusiasm for the festival happened to need jump-starting (as it never seems to do), this program would certainly get the job done.

Unless we count the grim, dreary Metamorphosen: A Study for Twenty-Three Solo Strings (1945), the Alpine Symphony is Strauss' final tone poem, and it reverses, temporarily, the evolution of his style of the previous decade. It has no vocal music, and it is composed on a huge scale, in terms of length and the instrumental forces employed — Mahlerian in everything but profundity — that makes quite a contrast with the spare, almost neo-classical style he had been developing since his Symphonia Domestica, Opus 53 of 1903.

There has been some mystery as to Strauss's motive for turning out such an enormous, post-romantic work at this time. I think that the above reference to Mahler provides a possible clue: Mahler had died in 1911, and the <I>Alpine Symphony</i> might serve as an homage to the Viennese master.

Strauss once told a friend: "One score is always on my piano, the 'Resurrection' [Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C-Minor]; I never cease to learn from it." Whatever Strauss' anti-Semitic father might have thought of Mahler, Strauss was clearly in thrall to him as a composer.

Strauss was at his best in his farewells, and the Alpine Symphony can be heard as bidding farewell, not just to Mahler, but to the entire pre-war order — what Stefan Zweig (Strauss' librettist for Die schweigsame Frau) called "The World of Yesterday."

Beethoven's Second is one of the least-performed of the Nine, and for the life of me, I can't think why. It is just about his last work in his 18th century style, and it kisses off that style as completely as the Alpine Symphony kisses off the sprawling Schubert version of the symphonic form. The Second is one of Beethoven's most compelling and exciting pieces of any period. It is the work of a young man in a hurry, even the opening adagio has a kind of impatience to it, while the first movement to which it leads must be the most fun to conduct of any symphonic movement in existence. The second movement "Larghetto" manages to be spacious and noble-spirited without ever, quite, relinquishing the irresistible forward motion of the overall work.

Then, as if to make himself perfectly clear, Beethoven dispenses with the traditional, stately, third-movement minuet, and substitutes a rollicking scherzo. Then the finale snatches the baton and races to the finish line — albeit with the occasional sotto voce asides before plunging back into the torrent. Romantic movement, here we come!

With the Prokofiev, we witness the collapse and compression of the Romantic time of the Strauss, which appeared a mere two years before, into the tight, disciplined lyricism of neo-classicism. That's how much change can take place in two years time, especially if there's a war going on.

Tickets to this concert are $45. For tickets and information, call 805.969.8787 or click here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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