A young member of the audience at Saturday’s Spokane Symphony concert said her favorite work on the program was not the dazzling “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (“Thus Spoke Zarathustra” – 1896) by Richard Strauss. Or the gorgeous “Four Last Songs” (1948) by the same composer. Rather, it was the first piece on the program, “Foreign Bodies” (2001) by the contemporary Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Her excitement validates one of music director Eckart Preu’s principal reasons for stepping up the role of contemporary music in his programming: to open the door of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox as widely as possible with works that have not been vetted and categorized by experts, and that offer a fresh experience to everyone who hears them.
“Foreign Bodies” was the product of Salonen’s sabbatical in 2001 from his duties as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Salonen said he took that time to rediscover the physical reality of sound, and wished to affirm that it is not merely the residue left on a page by the composer’s intellectual processes, but a real physical experience capable of stimulating thought and feeling.
The work calls for many exotic instruments, and employs the customary instruments in weird and wonderful ways. Melodic instruments, such as the violins, are played percussively, while melodic elements are assigned to the percussion. Some of the strings are asked to detune their instruments in order to produce effects one would not think them capable of.
Salonen employs rhythm rather than melody to impart structure to “Foreign Bodies,” and delivers an experience that is varied, fascinating and powerful. What it does not deliver, however, is sentiment or a specific emotional response to a specific idea or experience. Affection, nostalgia, grief, joy – all are sentiments and vital components of human life, but they do not appear in “Foreign Bodies.”
They do appear, however, in Strauss’ “Four Last Songs.” As performed by the musicians of the Spokane Symphony and the evening’s astounding vocal soloist, Amber Wagner, the effect was just what Strauss intended: deeply moving but always authentic, the emotion rising from within the music and text, rather than being troweled over the surface by the performers.
In his preconcert lecture, Preu said he held off programming the songs for six years while seeking the perfect soprano soloist. The wait paid off. Capable of rising above the densest orchestral fabric and penetrating to the farthest seat of the largest auditorium with ease, Wagner’s flexible soprano can thrust like a sword or soothe like a caress.
Strauss wrote his songs with the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad in mind. Had he lived, he would have been gratified by Flagstad’s premiere of the work in 1950, as he would have been by Wagner’s glorious singing and the superb playing of the Spokane Symphony.
Strauss assigns two passages of surpassing beauty not to the soloist, but to members of the orchestra. The first, a solo for horn, concludes the second song, “September.” It was performed by principal horn Jennifer Scriggins Brummett with such tenderness and bittersweet nostalgia as to make the listener wish it would never end. The second, a violin solo in the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep),” was a master-class by Concertmaster Mateusz Wolski in the art of expressing sentiment without sentimentality.
Concluding the concert was “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” one of Strauss’ most celebrated works. Though it was composed 50 years before “Four Last Songs,” it employs the same harmonic and instrumental language, but to entirely different effect. Bristling with wit and ingenuity, abounding in juicy tunes and jewel-like sonorities, “Zarathustra” is Strauss’ self-constructed monument to his own gifts, both a demonstration and celebration of the composer’s craft. It is a work of astounding virtuosity, and was so interpreted and performed by Preu and the orchestra.
For the emotional depth and philosophic honesty that comes only through transcendence of the self, however, one returns to the “Four Last Songs.”