Article By: DIANE WITTRY Special to The Press
‘Zarathustra’ has a lot to say
for Allentown Symphony fans
With the start of September comes the start of another Allentown Symphony Orchestra season.
The professional orchestra performs pops and classical concerts from September through May at Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.
Whatever we are performing, it is always a lot of fun for myself, musicians, and audience.
This year, we begin the season in a very dramatic way. Many people remember director Stanley Kubrick’s film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the 1968 film that utilizes the opening minute or so of Richard Strauss’s epic work “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” translated as “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”
What many people may not realize is how the piece continues after that first minute or so of the initial fanfare. The Strauss piece will be performed in its entirety for the first time in the Lehigh Valley.
Strauss was inspired to write “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in 1896 after reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of poetry.
Nietzsche was a leading philosopher at the time and his book was quite controversial. The book chronicles the fictitious travels and speeches of Zarathustra.
Nietzsche deals with topic of man’s purpose in life and self-reliance. In essence, Nietzsche created the concept of the “superman,” a man who relied solely on himself.
What I really love about the Strauss piece are its sweeping phrases and melodies and the sound that the composer gets from the entire orchestra. For this work, the orchestra will be very large. Hearing this music live coming off the stage at Miller Symphony Hall will be amazing.
Strauss selected eight sections of the poetry book by Nietzsche and captured each of them in music, but definitely with a twist of his own. The rising three notes played by the brass in the opening fanfare comes back many times throughout the piece and helps to tie everything together.
Strauss also has a protagonist theme, a “fate motive,” that keeps interrupting, played often by the trombones. What better instrument than trombones to cut through the entire orchestra and try to high-jack everyone to play a different theme of music.
I think the “Of Science” section is particularly clever, where Strauss creates a fugue theme using all 12 notes of the scale that is tossed around the orchestra and played slower and faster on top of itself. It shows how “scientific” he could be with the combination of notes.
Toward the end of the piece, there is a section that is titled from one of Nietzche’s poems, “The Dance of Life.” Strauss decides to use a Viennese waltz theme, reminding us of Johann Strauss, “The Waltz King” (no relationship). This section showcases the concertmaster of the orchestra as the “superman” violinist.
With this piece, however, Richard Strauss is not trying to make a philosophical statement, as much as he is using the ideas of Nietzsche as musical inspiration.
Before the premiere in Berlin, Strauss wrote a letter to a friend with a brief description of what he was trying to achieve with the composition:
“I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman.
“The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to Nietzsche’s genius, which found its greatest exemplification in his book, ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra.’”
Richard Wagner was also a great Nietzsche fan, which is why I included his Prelude to “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (“The Master-Singers of Nuremberg”) as the first piece on the program. With its rising triumphant, brassy and march-like theme, it is the perfect opener for the concert.
Sandwiched between these two great works will be the Grieg “Piano Concerto No. 1,” written when Edvard Grieg was just 26-years-old. Noted for its dramatic solo piano chords and arpeggios at the opening, the piece will feature the young pianist George Li, who is quickly making an international name for himself.
Li, an Avery Fischer Career Grant winner (2016) and Silver Medalist winner (2015) at the famous Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, has already soloed with most of the major orchestras in the United States and is definitely a pianist to come and hear live.
A rising pianist star, a work with a beginning fanfare known to all, but seldom performed live in its’ entirety, and an uplifting opening piece loved by all, creates a winning combination for the Allentown Symphony’s season-opening concert, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 and 3 p.m. Sept. 23. I hope to see all of you at the concerts.
“Meet the Artist” with Allentown Symphony Music Director-Conductor Diane Wittry and George Li, who will perform, noon-1 p.m. Sept. 21, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown. The talk is free and open to the public.
Diane Wittry is Music Director and Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Music Director and Conductor of The Garden State Philharmonic, New Jersey, and author of “Beyond the Baton” and “Baton Basics.” She teaches conducting workshops throughout the United States and Europe.
Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall Box Office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; allentownsymphony.org; 610-432-6715. Free student tickets, underwritten by the Century Fund, available for Allentown Symphony Orchestra concerts.