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Sight and Sound: Powerful Chords and Heavy Drum Strokes of Madness

New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
10/27/2019 -  
Richard Strauss: Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Op. 35
Lucas Button (Cello), Leonardo Vásquez Chacón (Viola)
The Orchestra Now, Leon Botstein (Conductor)

Triumphal Arch

Many composers have been tempted and inspired by Don Quixote and his visionary approach to life. None of them have better captured the Don’s romantic pursuit of a woman and his battles with imagined enemies than Richard Strauss. The Orchestra Now (TON), a group of musicians on the cusp of major careers, performs the work under the baton of Leon Botstein of the American Symphony Orchestra.

Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character is not played as often as a work of this quality might be. Often paired with Heldenleben which has always been considered a masterpiece, the Don is added for comic relief. “A humoristic
counterpart,” Strauss himself wrote.

The role of Don Quixote is played on the cello. Lucas Button is a moving creator of musical character. Leonardo Vásquez Chacón’s take on the viola is a humorous Sancho Panza. Strauss wrote that Don Quixote would be a satyr play, yet the darker undertones of the novel are depicted in Strauss’ score. Some imagine that Strauss is thinking about his dying mother and his father’s inability to give comfort. Others comment that Strauss himself fought depression by composing. His wife Pauline exhibited moments of madness. Strauss was perhaps familiar with the need to create hope-in-fantasy when a cheerful countenance could not be brought to real matters of the world.

Whether or not Strauss’ biography deeply influenced the work, the tone poem is rich in feeling and a glimpse of the great operas yet to be composed. No singing here. Instead the cello and viola, assisted from time to time by other instruments, represent the two main characters. Both Mr. Button and Mr. Vásquez Chacón are both masters of the bow.

The tone poem consists of an introduction, ten variations and a “finale.” Each variation is based on a chapter in Cervantes’s novel, but Strauss did not keep the original order of the episodes. Instead, by selecting the stories among many dozens in the book, he devised his own story.

As Botstein conducts, we hear Strauss’ main ideas. Weaving themes together with skillful complexity, we sense from TON that the Don has gone mad in a series of chords over heavy drum strokes. Don Quixote’s main theme is played by cello and viola joined by clarinet and tenor tuba. The long-winded viola solo was performed to clue us clearly into Sancho Panza’s character. The complexity of the theme’s presentation catches us up in the Don’s fantasies.

Knight and squire soon start on their way. The windmills, which the Don takes for giants, are pictured by a descending motif that clashes with the Don Quixote theme. TON then shatters the theme to pieces. As the Don bounces back, he is played by three cellos, not just one. Warlike music leads right into a delicious tone-painting passage. The bleating of a herd of sheep, which the Don sees as a great army, is rendered by a series of extraordinary dissonances, played with quick repeats of the same tones by the muted brass instruments.

The orchestra’s concerts at the Metropolitan Museum are tied to exhibits. In the first half of the program, Botstein spoke about the current exhibit entitled The Last Knight, Maximilian I, Holy Roman Empire. Quite unlike the Don, Maximilian travelled everywhere with his coffin. He was a splendid self promoter, and many of the works in the Museum exhibit were designed as part of Maximilian’s campaign for glory. These include a huge drawing of a Triumphal Arch, the work in part of Albrecht Dürer. The glory of knighthood celebrated in art is contrasted with an ambivalent picture in music. While Cervantes brought the Don back to reality, the composer seems to ask whether it is best to live in the real world or a fancied one. The Orchestra Now delivered that quizzical richness in the Metropolitan Museum concert.

Susan Hall



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