Thursday, February 20, 2014

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

20 February 2014

Marking the weekend of St Valentine's Day with a concert about death (the theme was actually love and death, but frankly it was mostly death) didn't appear to be the Northampton Symphony Orchestra's wisest marketing strategy. But we managed to attract a reasonable size of audience who really seemed to appreciate our weighty, romantic repertoire. I think this was the most ambitious programme we have attempted for some time and it was incredibly enjoyable to play. Rachmaninov's symphonic poem 'Die Toteninsel' ('The Isle of the Dead') was inspired by a black and white photograph of a painting by Arnold Böcklin which shows Charon, boatman of the Underworld, rowing a coffin across the river Styx to a lonely island. The relentlessly hypnotic 5/8 rhythm disconcertingly shifts from patterns of 2+3 to 3+2 as the boat shifts in the flow of the river. It's a gently emotional meditation on death. We were then joined by the Australian soprano Helena Dix to perform Mahler's song cycle 'Rückert Lieder' – five settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert. The five songs are each very different, varying from the playful to the dramatic to the achingly beautiful. There is a style and a beauty in several of the 'Rückert Lieder' that is echoed in the 'Four Last Songs' by Richard Strauss, written nearly 50 years later. The second half of our concert started with the 'Prelude and Liebestod' from Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' with Helena Dix signing the part of Isolde – the apogee of romantic music, a heart-rending climax of ecstasy and tragedy. After which we had to dig deep in our reserves of emotional stamina to perform the Richard Strauss tone poem 'Tod und Verklärung' ('Death and Transfiguration'). This remarkable piece, representing the dying hours of a man reflecting on his past life before the soul leaves his body, was written when the composer was barely 25 years old. When we started rehearsing 'Tod und Verklärung' I mistook references to 'the Superman motif', assuming that this somehow related to Nietzsche and his concept of Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra (itself the subject of a tone poem by Richard Strauss). I soon realised I had been somewhat over-intellectualising and that we were actually talking about the bit that sounds remarkably like John Williams' theme for the 1978 film 'Superman'! This heroic phrase, with its glorious, drawn-out octave leap provides a stunning climax in the middle of 'Tod und Verklärung' and then becomes the basis for an ethereal, haunting, slow canon as life begins to seep away. It was an emotionally exhausting performance that I thoroughly enjoyed being part of.

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