Gustavo Dudamel conducts “Also sprach Zarathustra”

28 Apr 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Gustavo Dudamel

Leonidas Kavakos

  • Maurice Ravel
    Ma Mère l’Oye, balle (20 min.)

  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op. 35 (35 min.)

    Leonidas Kavakos Violin

  • Richard Strauss
    Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), op. 30 (43 min.)

  • free

    Gustavo Dudamel on Ravel, Korngold and Richard Strauss (17 min.)

For Gustavo Dudamel, the age of the Titan of the conductor’s podium is over: “I’m just part of the orchestra, only by working closely together can the magic of the music develop!” And yet it can not be overlooked that Dudamel holds a prominent position among musicians of our time – as a conductor who stands out not by an otherworldly authority over others but by an absolute devotion to the music and a unique ability to inspire orchestras and audiences with his energy. In this concert he demonstrates these qualities in, among other works, Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra.

Many musical stories are related in this concert. Firstly in Ravel’s Ma mere l’oye, a sequence of scenes from fairy tales full of elegance, poetry and wit. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto is a work that initially follows abstract forms, with a noble, occasionally breakneck solo part. At a deeper level, however, you will also find fragments of illustrative music: quotations in fact from film music which Korngold composed after he emigrated to the United States in 1938 and which are still an inspiration for film composers. The soloist is Leonidas Kavakos, who the press celebrated at his most recent guest appearance in Berlin as the “Greek miracle violinist”, who has “perhaps the most beautiful tone that can be produced on the instrument”.

We remain to an extent in the realm of film with Also sprach Zarathustra, the piece which, as is well known, became a classical music world hit thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it has almost been forgotten that the real basis of the piece was a philosophical work by Friedrich Nietzsche. This is not, however, depicted literally by Strauss, but Nietzsche’s free, life-affirming view defines the work’s musically powerful optimism.

Stylistic Diversity of the 20th Century

Music of Ravel, Korngold and Strauss

Poetry of Childhood

Throughout his life Maurice Ravel felt an affinity for the childlike. He collected toys, loved fairy tales and stories of enchantment and was able to see the world through a child’s eyes like few others. There are numerous accounts of how, when visiting friends, Ravel left the adults and went to the nursery to play with the children or tell them stories. Thus it is not surprising that Ravel devoted a considerable portion of his oeuvre to music for children. In addition to the fantasy opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells), these works include, above all, the cycle Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), a suite of five children’s pieces which Ravel composed between 1908 and 1910 “for my young friends Mimie and Jean Godebski”, whose parents were close friends of the composer.

Ravel borrowed most of the themes for the five movements from the fairy tale collection by Charles Perrault, the French author known as the father of this literary genre. “The idea of evoking the poetry of childhood in these pieces naturally led me to simplify my style and refine my means of expression,” the composer commented about the piano pieces, which he arranged for orchestra in 1911 and expanded into a half-hour ballet version in early 1912. The piano pieces avoid complicated tonalities and chordal masses so that they can be played by children, and in the orchestral version Ravel also refrains from dense instrumentation in order to achieve a poetic, elegant and at times witty musical idiom.

Brilliant Recycling

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a musical prodigy. Born in Brno in 1897, the son of a music critic, at the age of eight he had already composed fully developed works, and a year later Gustav Mahler called him a genius. Korngold’s first operas and orchestral works were premiered by distinguished conductors. He achieved his greatest success at the age of 23 with the opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), which had a double premiere in Hamburg and Cologne on 4 December 1920.

Korngold began collaborating with theatre director Max Reinhardt at the end of the 1920s. When Reinhardt went to Hollywood to work on a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he invited Korngold to arrange Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for it. Korngold liked working in the still young medium of film. He signed a contract with Warner Brothers and commuted between Vienna and California, until the annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany compelled him to take up permanent residence in the US. There he devoted himself almost exclusively to film scores during the following years.

After the Second World War ended, Korngold decided to return to absolute music. One of the first works he composed after 1945 was the Violin Concerto in D major op. 35. In it Korngold drew on melodies from his film scores, which he freely integrated into the framework of the classical concerto form. The principal theme of the predominantly lyrical first movement comes from the film Another Dawn; the ecstatic second theme is from Juárez. In these quotations Korngold does not allude to the film scenes on which they are based but rather uses them as abstract material within a conventional sonata movement that includes a cadenza and a brilliant coda.

During the three-part Romance that follows, the soloist captivates with cantabile playing in the highest register. Korngold took this theme from his Oscar-winning score for the melodrama Anthony Adverse. Although the softly pulsating accompaniment of the vibraphone, harp and celesta clearly evokes the style of film music, Korngold composed the middle section of this movement expressly for the concerto.

In the principal theme of the exuberant finale, Korngold quotes his music from the film The Prince and the Pauper. This movement is a virtuosic display of fireworks that demands everything from the soloist – lightning runs, treacherous double stops and harmonics in unusual positions. A contrasting motif subdues the high-spirited atmosphere only briefly, until the coda brings the work to its thrilling conclusion.

Symphonic Optimism

“In my opinion, a poetic programme is nothing but a pretext for the purely musical expression and development of my emotions, and not a simple musical description of concrete everyday facts. For that would be quite contrary to the spirit of music.” When Richard Strauss explained his ideas on programme music to the French writer Romain Rolland in 1905, he had already composed most of his symphonic poems. He had been familiar with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche since the early 1890s. Strauss was particularly fascinated by Nietzsche’s rejection of any form of dogmatism, imposed conformity or heteronomy and his commitment to the freedom of the individual. These were the factors that inspired him to compose Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spoke Zarathustra) op. 30, a symphonic poem freely based on Nietzsche’s treatise of the same title, in 1895/96.

Strauss made the following comments about the background to the composition: “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray Nietzsche’s great work in music. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch (Superman). The whole symphonic poem is intended as an homage to Nietzsche’s genius.”

During Also sprach Zarathustra nine sections flow into each other without pause. The work has a clear formal structure in which the dominant themes and motifs can be distinguished as easily as their variants. According to the current interpretation, the work is a sonata movement with exposition, development and coda, although the first two sections are separated by a general pause. Strauss’s use of the chapter headings from Nietzsche’s book in the autograph score reflects this structure.

The themes presented in the first sections are developed episodically, like variations, and intensified during large-scale developmental passages. Later they appear frequently in a different form, and the restatement is not merely a repetition of the themes presented at the beginning, but introduces new material. At times profound, at times satirical or even humorous, the music captures Nietzsche’s ideas and images, for example, the sunrise in the familiar opening bars over a thundering pedal point and the subsequent nature motif with its alternation between major and minor. Using quotations from the Gregorian Credo and the Magnificat, Strauss depicts Die Hinterwäldler (The Back World Dwellers) as people whose narrow-minded thinking is characterised by religious zealotry.

The section Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science), which Strauss constructed as a textbook fugue, seems like a satire on musical scholarship; the composer demonstrates his own virtuosity, since the theme contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Der Genesende (The Convalescent) tempts the composer to musical mockery and humour. In his sketchbook, he commented on this section of the score: “Shaking with laughter, muted trumpets – hee hee hee hee.” The orgiastic culmination of the composition is the section Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song), in which an increasingly self-parodying waltz not coincidentally recalls the music of Johann Strauss. This exuberant climax is followed by a restrained ending – an unresolved musical gesture concludes the work.

Martin Demmler

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Gustavo Dudamel was only twenty-three when he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition organized by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in 2004. Since then he has become an iconic figure in the world of classical music. He was born in Barquisimeto in Venezuela in 1981 and trained as a conductor, violinist and composer: he studied the violin with José Francisco del Castillo at the Latin American Academy for the Violin and took lessons in conducting with Rodolfo Saglimbeni and José Antonio Abreu. Since 1999 he has been music director of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and together they have appeared four times in the Berlin Philharmonie. During the 2007/08 season he also became principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and has taken over the same post with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 2009/10 season. Dudamel is actively involved in the education programmes of both these orchestras. In addition, he is a regular guest conductor with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Israel Philharmonic, the Philharmonia of London, Milan’s La Scala and the Vienna Philharmonic. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at its annual Waldbühne Concert in June 2008; he last appeared with the orchestra in December 2010 conducting works by Berlioz, Bizet, de Falla and Saint-Saëns. His distinctions include the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Music Award for Young Artists (2007) and the Würth Prize by Germany’s Jeunesses Musicales (2008). Dudamel was inducted into l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres as a Chevalier in Paris in 2009 and into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 2011.

Leonidas Kavakos was born in Athens, Greece, in 1967 and started playing the violin at the age of five. After studies at the Greek National Conservatoire in his hometown, an Onassis Foundation scholarship enabled him to attend master classes with Josef Gingold at Indiana University. In 1985 he won the Sibelius competition and then the Paganini competition in 1988. Following these successes, he received invitations from all corners of the world. Kavakos now appears in concert with the world’s great orchestras and conductors both in Europe and in North America, in addition to regular visits to renowned festivals worldwide. In 1991, Kavakos won the Gramophone Award for the first recording ever of the original version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (1903/04). His partners in chamber music include Emanuel Ax, Renaud and Gautier Capuçon as well as Hélène Grimaud and Elisabeth Leonskaja. After having held the position of Principal Guest Artist of the Camerata Salzburg for six years, Kavakos was Artistic Director of the orchestra from 2007 until September 2009. He gave his debut as soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2003 with the Sibelius Concerto. His last appearance with the orchestra was in December 2009 under the direction of Zubin Mehta with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Leonidas Kavakos plays the “Abergavenny” Stradivarius of 1724.

Deutsche GrammophonGustavo Dudamel appears by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.

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