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Sisyphus on Holiday

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/14/2002 -  
Richard Strauss: Aus Italien;Eine Alpensinfonie
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

“They never leave off being amorously friendly with
almost everybody, emitting a relentless physical familiarity
that is quite bewildering to one not brought up near a volcano.”

D.H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia

For anyone who has ever been to the isle of Capri, the image that stays in the mind the longest is not the blue of the grotto or the formidability of the cliffs over which Tiberius threw his enemies, but rather the absurd nature of the funicular, the little seat on pulleys which takes one up to Anacapri. Although the trip is delightful (and necessary considering the steepness of the climb), it is laughably short and engenders thoughts, both positive and negative, about the transitory nature of human existence. The carefree tune, Funiculi, funicula, actually written to describe the trip up and down nearby Vesuvius, is the perfect emblem of a Mediterranean sojourn and has become the showpiece of an entire genre of music, the “Italian song”, an inexhaustible reservoir of happy ditties which has supplied several generations of more serious operatic and lieder singers with a refreshing draught of the waters of Lethe to lull their audience into the warm stupor of forgetfulness for the encore portion of their recitals. The young Richard Strauss, eager to capture the spirit of his neighbor to the south, integrates this infectious theme into his first descriptive tone poem, Aus Italien, and it predictably steals the show. Gustav Mahler, who conducted the Vienna premiere of his friend’s opus, thought that the tune was indeed composed by Strauss and, when learning of the creative borrowing (so Italian in itself) which led to its inclusion, waxed poetic about the entire process of melodic invention. Although it is the British who built entire cemeteries for their expats in Italy, the Germans also use the sunnier climes as stimuli for rejuvenation of the corpus and invigoration of the spirit (cf. Mendelssohn 4). As Lawrence points out in “The Crucifix Across the Mountains”, on a walk from Munich (Strauss’ hometown) through Austria to Verona, one encounters three distinct ways of perceiving the seriousness and relative weight of thousands of years of civilization.

Of course, the resulting musical product is the Italian sunlight filtered through a German prism. The most endearing quality of the American Symphony is its elevation of such obscure compositions, in this case a piece of juvenilia, to the status of works to be cherished, the instrumental forces lavishing just as much love and care on this heavy-handed travelogue as on the masterpiece which it foreshadowed. The sound of the orchestra was superb throughout, the scene on the beach at Sorrento (many Germans have their first look at the sea in Italy) especially lovely and tranquil, Professor Botstein painting just the right shading as a background: a warm but somewhat stiff respite in your grandmother’s most overstuffed chair.

There is no insouciant funicular in the Alps (a chair lift is just not the same thing) and so we are forced to make the uphill climb on foot. No apologies are necessary for the choice of repertoire here: the Alpensinfonie is itself the summit of Strauss’ descriptive output. This ASO performance treated it in the granitic and noble manner appropriate to its degree of import. The huge forces (including 20 horns) were prepared for the long ascent, their leader tightening or slackening their ropes as needed but always allowing them to vigorously expend their energies or stop and take the spectacular views as desired. Especially impressive was the unity of the massive string section, early on establishing a strong, propulsive undercurrent that would gloriously burst forth for the storm scene. The brass, both on and off stage, was confident and expressive, insistent in their fanfares before the climb and reflective in the repeats after the descent. Strauss was once pressed into service as a percussionist under Brahms for a performance of the latter’s Academic Festival and developed in a hurry a healthy respect for the art of the battery, which stood him in good stead for the writing of this amazingly colorful work. The regular drummers and assorted colleagues (today was full employment day at the ASO) handled everything from triangle to wind machine with expertise and aplomb, creating a rugged atmosphere rare outside the opera house. From first muted mystery to last shuddering slide, this was a terribly moving performance. Botstein conveyed a fine grasp of the architecture of the work as a whole and perhaps the most pleasing part of this rendering was the ably demonstrated concept that making it to the top might be important, but it is much more elementally satisfying to learn something in the process, grow from the experience, and get home safely, edified and transformed. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad encapsulation of the American Symphony’s artistic philosophy.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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