It’s one of the most famous opening moments in movie history. As Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science-fiction film “2001: A Space Odyssey” begins, we watch as the sun slowly rises above the shadowy Earth, starting as a dim glow and intensifying. The scene is scored to (and musically echoed by) the opening fanfare of German composer Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and it’s such a euphoric coupling of sound and image that Strauss’ piece may as well have been written specifically for the movie.
This weekend the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, as conducted by Eckart Preu, will celebrate the work of Strauss as part of their ongoing Classics series. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is arguably Strauss’ most famous composition, but his body of work boasts nearly 300 operas and orchestral pieces that date from the 1870s to the 1940s, making him one of the most prolific and influential composers of his era.
Along with “Zarathustra,” the Symphony will perform Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” accompanied by visiting soprano Amber Wagner. Strauss died months before the piece premiered in 1950, and it deals exclusively with themes of death and closure. It comprises four separate movements (though historians can’t confirm if Strauss ever intended to group them together) and freely borrows passages from the poetry of Herman Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff.
“Instead of making it romantic, he chose to deal with it in the way of accepting death as completion and quietly giving over to it,” Wagner said of the Strauss piece. “The orchestration is really beautiful, and it’s like a duet between the orchestra and the solo vocal line. It’s 23 minutes of just the most gorgeous music.”
Also on the program is Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Foreign Bodies,” which Preu said functions almost as a modern antithesis to the Strauss pieces: While Strauss’ approach to music was ethereal and otherworldly, Salonen’s is very much about its own moving parts. “It’s contemporary, but it’s very much rooted in the sounds of late romanticism,” Preu said, likening Salonen’s piece to an “attractive machine.”
But it’s the Strauss pieces (and Wagner’s guest appearance) that deserve most of the attention. “(Strauss) is a musician that paints pictures in a way that nobody else can or ever could; that’s really what he’s best at,” Preu said. “His music stands very much on its own. It’s some of the most colorful music ever written, and some of the most satisfying music to play and listen to.”