Spectacular Strauss (Curtis Symphony Orchestra): Germanic overtures

Is it possible for a composer to be too German? Sure, the deeply problematic Wagner has long cornered the market on gratuitous Teutonic mythmaking, but it’s his disciple Richard Strauss who wrote an honest-to-Moses paean to the übermensch. The opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra ring in the ears of every living person, one of the most ubiquitous you-know-it-even-if-you-don’t-know-what-it’s-called-or-who-wrote-it pieces of all time. And it’s clear why it’s stuck around, why it was favored by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Frank T.J. Mackey: this is the least subtle music ever to wiggle through the air. This is as German as it gets.

Okay, out with it: I am not a Strauss fan. To me, when his music isn’t obvious and overbearing, it’s tepid and meandering. One of the few pieces I don’t mind is—surprise surprise—possibly his most consequential non-Nietzsche-related work: the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Strauss’s legendary opera Salome. Lucky for me, that was the first piece on offer at Curtis Symphony Orchestra’s season opener, “Spectacular Strauss,” presented in collaboration with Curtis Opera Theatre.

If anyone could convert me to the church of Strauss, it’s the excellent Curtis orchestra fronted by conducting fellow Micah Gleason. In Gleason’s hands, the dance sounds slightly drunk—an appropriate mode for this uncharacteristically slinky piece from Strauss. Gleason honors the fluidity of the score, keeping the rhythm loose and seductive. It’s for this reason that the frenzied finale absolutely punches us in the face. Gleason up to this point has been teasing, stirring the orchestra with a subtle, gentle hand. When the finale arrives, Gleason digs in, and her joy and exuberance come through both in the music and in her physical performance. It’s no wonder her mentor is the famously joyful and exuberant Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Speak of the devil: Yannick takes over on baton for the rest of the performance, which commences with excerpts from Strauss’s less scandalous operas, Ariadne auf Naxos and Der Rosenkavalier. And look, it’s Yannick, of course he’s fantastic. His strength and humor and control carry the operatic excerpts to great heights, and watching him engage with the vocalists as well as the orchestra shows his profound love for the whole damn thing—the music, the lyric, the audience, everything. Yannick is, as always, unparalleled in pure love of the game.

But this show isn’t about him. It’s about the boundless talent and youthful enthusiasm of the Curtis students. Do we imagine that these KIDS can steal the stage from one of the most celebrated conductors of his generation?

You betcha. First we have Ariadne, in which, as far as I can tell, a “saucy comedienne” (so sayeth the program notes) is wooed by a barbershop quartet. The boys are sweet and earnest and funny, and we’re charmed by soprano Maya Mor Mitrani’s ability to smooth the rough edges of the world’s unsexiest language. I’m usually bored by these sorts of showcases, preferring to hear these excerpts in the context of a full opera, but the students of Curtis Opera Theatre have great fun, and Yannick keeps them engaged and on point. I was easily swept up and won over.

The opening of Act II of Der Rosenkavalier culminates in some truly decadent harmonies between soprano Juliette Tacchino and standout mezzo Judy Zhuo. The two are fully locked in as they take on the delicate terrain of their duet. Their successors to the stage, for the trio “Hab mir’s gelobt,” have an equally tough job keeping an intricate network of harmonies afloat. Thankfully, sopranos Emily Damasco and Sarah Fleiss and mezzo Katie Trigg understand the assignment. Damasco in particular holds her own as the mournful Marschallin, lending pathos without downshifting into the maudlin and the melodramatic. The trio is the high point of the evening.

So to speak, anyway. We’ve still got a figurative mountain to climb. Closing out this spectacular is Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, a not-quite-symphony, not-quite-tone-poem that—program notes again—“scaled the heights of human expression” when it premiered a century and change ago. What is it with Germans and trying to fit the entire human experience into, like, forty-five minutes of wiggly air? It’s that kind of hubris that makes me roll my eyes at many of the so-called Romantics.

To his credit, Strauss probably got closer than most to achieving his goal. An Alpine Symphony begins with a long, slow descent—a seeming contradiction of Strauss’s program, which tells us that he means to depict a day-long journey up an Alpine mountain. Part one (of twenty-two, yikes) is called “Night,” so maybe the descending scale is intended to mimic the sun’s descent from the sky. But isn’t music best when the composer isn’t standing over your shoulder, telling you how to hear it?

What I hear in the opening of the Alpine Symphony is a great bellow, rippling up from the center of the Earth and shifting tectonic plates to form—a-ha!—a mountain. (Maybe those Romantics weren’t so full of shit after all.) This deep rumble gives the low brass and low strings an opportunity to shine—those fantastic Curtis basses!—until “Sunrise” bursts forth and is held aloft by piercing high strings. Later on, winds and glockenspiel take center stage in the “Waterfall” and “Apparition” sections, echoing the sounds of nature drifting in and out of our ears as we climb.

Perhaps this is why the Alpine is such a good choice for Curtis’s headliner: it gives every section of the orchestra an opportunity to shine.

But there are also some wonderful moments where the orchestra comes together as a single instrument. When the storm hits (in part—ugh—nineteen) the Curtis orchestra becomes a great bolt of lightning, battering the merry travelers of Strauss’s imaginary narrative. When Yannick leads them smoothly into the sweet, triumphant aftermath (“Sunset”/“End of the Day”), we realize that this was the point all along: Triumph and struggle. Both are exhilarating, both raise our heart rate. We need them both—and they need each other—to complete the human experience.

Damn. Maybe the Germans are right. (Sometimes.)

I don’t know if Curtis made me a fan of Strauss, but they reaffirmed my enthusiasm for their symphony orchestra and their opera theatre. It’s not necessarily surprising that the prestigious Curtis Institute draws such talented musicians into its ranks. But when they come together as a singular force, something special is born.

[Curtis Symphony Orchestra at Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St] October 22, 2023; curtis.edu

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