How does music mean? If we ask, rather, “What does music mean,” the answer, of course, is “nothing,” for meaning is not intrinsic to a work of art, but an experience we have in response to it. If music does not link with what we already know, as when we look at a text written in an unintelligible language, there is no meaning.
So how does a composer create music that communicates similar meanings to so many people? Some do this by creating patterns of contrast: fast with slow, loud with soft, major with minor, etc, and then stringing these contrasting sections together into movements, which are combined with other movements to form symphonies. As we experience these works, we find patterns that seem to lead to a “meaning.”
For such journeys toward meaning, there are few better guides than Eckart Preu, music director of the Spokane Symphony. In the current season alone, he has led us to startlingly fresh, new meanings through symphonies. At the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Saturday night, however, he programmed works by two great composers who never published a symphony: Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Strauss. Their music creates meaning not through long structures, but through melody, in which both composers showed genius.
As an example, we heard Verdi’s Prelude, Triumphal March and Ballet Music from “Aida.” By lavishing extraordinary care on tiny details, Preu and the orchestra enabled us to experience the fullness of what Verdi sought to portray: not merely pomp and power, but the tragic forces beneath the splendor, propelling a plot that ends in death and sacrifice. Verdi’s wonderful melodies were not merely punched out by the trumpets, as they so often are, but carefully molded. Even the accompaniment by the strings and trombones was carefully articulated and balanced. The result was far more rich and complex than usual.
This was followed by another orchestral excerpt from an opera: “Salome’s Dance” from Strauss’ “Salome” of 1905. Here Strauss also manages to communicate two fields of meaning at once: the colorful, attractive surface, curdled by an underlying erotic narcissism that motivates the characters.
This was all in preparation for the major work on the program, Strauss’ “A Hero’s Life.” Few orchestral works demand more of their performers than this. Strauss’ teeming imagination puts every instrument into the foreground, playing lines requiring virtuosic technique. At the pinnacle of this exhausting pyramid stands the principal violin, or concertmaster, representing, in this quasi-autobiographical work, the role of Strauss’ wife, Pauline. The “hero” of the title is certainly the composer, but only insofar as he stands for all artists avoiding the hazards of their profession while striving for immortality.
This surely pertains also to our concertmaster, Mateusz Wolski, who brought technical and interpretive brilliance to this part. Since his debut as concertmaster in 2007, Wolski has given many fine performances, but the wave of applause and “bravos” that swept through the auditorium when he took his bow marked a new high point in his embrace by the Spokane public.