Gustavo Dudamel conducts Strauss and Barber

03 Feb 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Gustavo Dudamel

  • Samuel Barber
    Adagio for strings, op. 11 (13 min.)

  • Richard Strauss
    Don Juan, op. 20 (21 min.)

  • Richard Strauss
    Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks), op. 28 (19 min.)

  • free

    Gustavo Dudamel in conversation with Sarah Willis (18 min.)

For his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker – an open-air concert at the Waldbühne in 2008 – Gustavo Dudamel presented the music of his homeland in an exclusively “South American Night”. This was followed by appearances at the Philharmonie with more of a Russian flavour, then for his most recent guest appearance, he turned to one of the demigods of German late Romanticism: Richard Strauss.

In particular, the image of Richard Strauss as a mature composer with a patriarchal aura has taken root in the minds of music lovers. Yet he was a young man – around Dudamel’s age – when he wrote his famous tone poems, including Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel which are performed at this concert. These works are not only full of youthful fire, but also demonstrate an endless orchestral sophistication which the young composer used to dispel any possible doubts about his talent from the very outset. As a result, Strauss's tone poems are among the most demanding ever written for symphony orchestras.

The Tagesspiegel review for one shows that Dudamel and the Berliner Philharmoniker met these requirements perfectly: “Dudamel conducted the Don Juan with relish, intoxicated by the Philharmoniker’s iridescent sound of a thousand colours. He did not fail to provide the irresistible charm, and allowed for the sugary confection of the melodies. The expressive musician that Dudamel is, he feels no need at all to jump around in order to spark the emotional storm. With focused arm movements and legs firmly on the ground, his strength comes from within. Phenomenal talent can also be shown in this way.”

The Game of Life and Death

Works by Samuel Barber, Béla Bartók and Richard Strauss

Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings op. 11

A child prodigy? In the final analysis, it is a matter of opinion whether this exalted term applies in the case of Samuel Barber. The fact is, however, that this composer, who has been badly neglected on the European continent until now, began to compose in earnest at the age of seven and at only fourteen was accepted as a student at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In addition to piano, Barber also studied voice there – a fact that would prove to be significant for his career as a composer. His penchant for a dominant melodic line and, related to it, his tremendous sense of phrase linearity are unmistakable. This conscious inclination is also obvious in the Adagio for Strings.

Hardly any other 20th-century work has exerted a comparably suggestive, even ingratiating effect on audiences. There are actually three reasons for this. The first lies in the instrumentation and the resulting coherent tonal image. The second is the restrained, extremely expressive theme, its continuously flowing, expansive melody, its timeless beauty. The third and perhaps most important reason is dramaturgical in nature. With every second this theme intensifies, ascends dynamic terraces as it were, while continuing to soar rhapsodically, circling around the listener as though on an ellipse. At the climax of the broad arch, shortly after the cellos have “taken the lead”, there is a brief culminating moment of ecstasy, a passionate outburst followed by paralysis. The music gradually overcomes this state – as might be expected, by taking up the elegiac theme again, continuing to develop it and finally allowing it to gently fade away after barely eight minutes.

Richard Strauss: Don Juan op. 20 and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche op. 28

Who has not painted a literary portrait of Don Juan! Calderòn, Molière and Goldoni did; E. T. A. Hoffmann, Lord Byron and Prosper Mérimée; Alexander Pushkin, Nikolaus Lenau and Charles Baudelaire; and later, George Bernard Shaw, Guillaume Apollinaire and Henry de Montherlant. It is only natural that these portraits proved to be quite different. Despite their differences, however, one thing unites them all – the fascination exerted by the subject of their works, his demonic aura.

Lenau provides one of the most poetic descriptions of this aura: “Fain would I run the magic circle, immeasurably wide, / Of a beautiful woman’s manifold charms, / In full tempest of enjoyment, / To die of a kiss at the mouth of the last one. / O my friend, would that I could fly through every place / Where beauty blossoms, fall on my knees before each one, / And, were it but for a moment, conquer” translation: Norman Del Mar. We encounter this burning and longing again in virtually every bar of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan, which was inspired by three sections drawn from Lenau’s poem Don Juan. Strauss does not simply depict the erotic rapture of his hero scene by scene, however. Instead, carefully avoiding descriptive elements, he creates intrinsic thematic values and momentum which are so strong and so vivid that the music is prevented from becoming merely a dazzling display. That is also precluded by the structural solution; Strauss chooses sonata form, with essentially two themes. The first, a triumphal orchestral figure in E major, is introduced in grand style, then transformed and developed in several episodes, in one great surge, as it were – passionate yet controlled, sensuous but not oppressive, full of life yet always self-possessed. It is juxtaposed with the second principal theme, played in bar 40 by the bass instruments, which pushes the music forward with vehemence. A second Don Juan theme forces its way into the proceedings, belated but “very energetic” and with Beethovenian grandeur; it is played in unison by the horns, Strauss’s favorite instrument. It is no accident that the hero becomes contemplative at this point in the score. His erotic intrigues were apparently too excessive and unrestrained after all. At the close, the sensual frenzy gradually subsides in gloomy minor.

The tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks serves as a humorous antithesis to Don Juan. This work, completed in 1895, is a brash, vivacious scherzo with striking tonal effects, “after an old picaresque tale, set in rondo form for large orchestra”. The profusion of musical ideas is astonishing – boundless exuberance, unrestrained high spirits and satire take on shapes as distinctive and buffoonish as the cries of the market women, a leisurely folk melody, a street song and – naturally – Till’s wistful longing, to be played “aflame with love” by the violins. There is no doubt that the hero is the centre of attention – although more roguish and philosophical than erotically charged – personified by two motifs which after their first appearance keep turning up again out of nowhere in various forms and picturesque arabesques. One of them – both mischievous and thoughtful in character – is introduced by the solo horn at the very beginning. Strauss gives the second and intrinsic Eulenspiegel motif, which is supposed to be “merry”, to the virtuoso D clarinet. Although this Janus-faced theme, like the entire work, stands on its own, the listener is nevertheless aware that there are programmatic overtones in the background. Thus, we can accompany the polymorphic Eulenspiegel hurrying through the world on his musical adventures, now brazen, now amorous. We can watch him playing his tricks and jokes and finally – after the trombones have pronounced his sentence – follow him to his death. With a final sighing flute trill, Till Eulenspiegel loses not only his merriness but his breath as well. The work is not over yet, however. An epilogue in F major follows, clearly expressing one thought: may the rogue’s spirit live on in this – according to Voltaire’s Candide – “best of all possible worlds”.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Gustavo Dudamelwas 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 at the beginning of May 2012 in Paris. 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. He has been named Musical America’s 2013 Musician of the Year.

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