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SFSYO concludes season with music from the twilight of two centuries

1799 oil portrait of Joseph Haydn
by Johann Carl Rößler, from Wikipedia (public domain)

For the final concert in the current season of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO), Wattis Foundation Music Director Donato Cabrera prepared a program that marked the passing of two major centuries in the history of music, the eighteenth and the nineteenth. The longest work on the program was the only selection following the intermission, Richard Strauss’ Opus 30 tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra” (thus spoke Zarathustra) composed between February of 1895 and August of 1896. To prepare the audience for Strauss, Cabrera chose to begin the program with orchestral music from Götterdämmerungˆ (twilight of the gods), the final opera of Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung). The major portion is known as “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and provides the transition from the duet of Siegfried and Brünnhilde to the first scene of the first act, which introduces us to three members of the Gibichung clan, all of whom will be involved in the events leading to Siegfried’s murder. In concert the music is often (as it was this afternoon) preceded by the representation of dawn, which introduces that duet of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, each of whom has just had the first experience of carnal love. Many (including myself) feel that this “twilight” of Wagner’s epic cycle also marked the beginning of that twilight of the conventions of making music in the nineteenth century. Between these two massive orchestral works, Cabrera presented the smaller scale of Joseph Haydn’s final symphony, his Hoboken I/104 (“London”) in D major, composed in London (as might be guessed) in 1795.

While Strauss’ tone poem may not be quite on the epic scale of Wagner’s Ring cycle, it may still count as his own most grandiose undertaking. The title is taken from what is probably the best-known work of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, thus marking a major departure from using music to depict either a narrative (the Opus 28 “Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks”) or “scenic impressions,” as in the Opus 16 “Aus Italien” (from Italy). It is unclear just what Strauss got out of reading Nietzsche’s book. He claimed it influenced him profoundly, but he knew better than to try to use music to depict philosophy.

On the other hand, it is also unclear how much Strauss knew about any of Nietzsche’s later works. I have always felt personally that one cannot effectively grasp anything that Nietzsche wrote without accepting the claim he makes in the preface to his 1888 Twilight of the Idols:

Nothing succeeds if prankishness has no part in it.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra was published in four parts between 1883 and 1885, and any reader that tries to deny the part that prankishness has in it is likely to encounter some major impediments to getting the message! Strauss may well have been one of those readers. His tone poem is a massive undertaking for a very large orchestra that seems to be determinedly straight-faced.

However, even if Strauss never quite grasped Nietzsche’s mindset, he still put out one hell of an episodic tone poem. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick, we now interpret Strauss’ opening depiction of dawn more as the unfolding of the entire cosmos, rather than just the sun rising on Planet Earth. (Haydn had already nailed that one in his Hoboken XXI/2 Creation oratorio.) Strauss engages the resources of his full orchestra to lead the listener through what may best be described as a series of impressions of mindsets. The sharing of any of those mindsets with Nietzsche is ultimately purely coincidental. What matters, however, is how Strauss deftly manages the flow through these episodes that begin with dawn and end with twilight.

Cabrera clearly had full command of that flow and communicated it stunningly to the SFSYO musicians. From the gradual crescendo of the opening, through the balancing of the full ensemble against some rather forceful organ pipes, and into the management of both large brass choirs and intimate string quartets, this was a performance in which one really had to appreciate the full scope of Strauss’ talents in working with an orchestra. One would have to be a born-and-bred sourpuss to deny the many skills that Strauss displayed and the equal skills brought forth through the execution of his score.

The opening Wagner selections, on the other hand, were not quite so certain. There were noticeable problems of intonation, particularly among the low brass, leading one to wonder to what extent the performers were worrying about hitting their notes to the exclusion of adjusting them by listening to the other instruments. However, when one steps away from these details, one recognizes that “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” was effectively presented as a far more explicit narrative tone poem than “Also sprach Zarathustra.” This is as it should be. For those who know the full Ring cycle, this orchestral interlude reviews just about all of the significant events of the preceding operas (including a reference to Brünnhilde’s past as a Valkyrie), thus preparing the attentive opera-goer for the downfall that is about to follow. What matters most about this selection is the narrative role it plays. Cabrera clearly grasped that role; and his “high-level view” of the music was presented with impressive clarity.

In this context Haydn’s symphony serves to remind us just how different things were at the end of the eighteenth century. Thanks to some of the splendid programs prepared by the New Esterházy Quartet of performances of symphonies by both Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the attentive listener can appreciate the extent to which such symphonies were basically string quartets with additional instruments selected for sonorous coloration. In the “London” symphony, Haydn is extremely generous in adding instruments to that sonorous mix, which makes it suitable for performance by a larger string section than would have been appropriate in the eighteenth century. However, beneath all those colors still lurks the heart of a string quartet.

This afternoon’s execution was one in which the attentive listener could appreciate the central role of the interplay of the four string voices. This was further enhanced by Cabrera’s decision to have the first and second violins face each other for the entire program. Nevertheless, there were still some problems of balance. The second (Andante) movement involves a fair amount of give-and-take rhetoric; and, unfortunately, the “take” did not always emerge as clearly as the “give.” Nevertheless, the other three movements were all given suitably spirited readings, making for an engaging listening experience on the whole, even if some of the parts were not always up to snuff.

More important was how the transitional nature of Haydn’s symphony fit right into the equally transitional efforts of Wagner and Strauss. This was a program that encouraged the listener to think beyond the boundaries of any single composition. The “grand design” is what mattered most; and it made for a highly satisfying conclusion to the SFSYO season.

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