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Being Music Fantasy—Richard Strauss in Beijing

    In 2014 we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss. To honor the legacy of the leading German composer of his age, the 17th Beijing Music Festival has invited an extraordinary and stellar line-up of national and international ensembles, conductors and performers. Andris Poga, Charles Dutoit, PaavoJärvi, Kent Nagano, Matthias Foremny, Long Yu—who simultaneously serves as the artistic director of the Beijing Music Festival—and Zhang Guoyong, will conduct the Munich Philharmonic, the Qingdao Symphony, the Orchestresymphonique de Montréal, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra de Paris, and the China Philharmonic Orchestra, respectively. Renowned and internationally acclaimed soloists Wang Jiang, Wang Liang, Olga Peretyatko, Lu Wei, Nicolas Angelich, and Brigitte Jäger, alongside a stunning contemporary operatic production brought to you by the Leipzig Opera, will join these exceptional artistic collaborations.Together they will explore and interpret the music of one of the most versatile and talented composers, equally at ease in the concert hall, recital hall, ballet, cinema and the opera house.

Towards the end of his life Richard Strauss summed up his artistic legacy by stating, “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I AM a first-class second-rate composer!”This deceptively lighthearted self-assessmentbrings into focus Strauss’s role in the growing rift between the 19th century bourgeois conception of an artist and composer, and the rapidly encroaching modernist perspective of the 20th. It also adversely affected the reception of his music and his person.Strauss made his name with a series of experimental tone poems that are now mainstays of the orchestral repertoire, while the operas that followed such as Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier remain operatic staples to this day. The popularity of these works should not detract, however, from the fact that Richard Strauss had always been a controversial figure. Accused of an excess of ironic detachment by friends and critics alike, his elegantly crafted and astonishingly appealing music wasfrequently classified as kitsch. Concordantly, his music from the 1920s and 1930s, citing his collaboration with the Nazi regime, came to represent the most corrupt and embarrassing examples of music that manipulated rather than elevated its audience. Arturo Toscanini famously said, “To Richard Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Richard Strauss the man I put it on again.” Strauss was fiercely proud of his lack of involvement in politics yet when many important performers fled their homelands rather than cooperate with the Nazi regime, he stayed home and happily composed his music while war and atrocities waged around him.Although Glenn Gould suggested that Strauss and Schoenberg were the two greatest composers of the century, serious scholarly interest in Richard Strauss had to wait until the last decade of the 20th century. For noted Richard Strauss scholar Bryan Gilliam, the composer poses a unique challenge in modern music. “The ideal likeness of Strauss,” he suggests, “would not be a painting, drawing, or sculpture, but it would be a mosaic, coherent from afar, but upon closer view made of numerous contrasting fragments.”

Beyond the contrasts, paradoxes and incongruities of his complex personality, there is coherent shape in Richard Strauss’s compositions. By the tender age of 18, Richard had composed roughly 140 compositions, including almost 60 songs and more than 40 piano works. Much of these juvenilia pay homage to the musical creed of his father, who favored the“trinity of Mozart (most of all), Haydn and Beethoven. Strauss began to celebrate his independence with a number of impressive orchestral works, before he became absorbed with the narrative potential of symphonic music by the turn of the century. Strauss’s reputation was forever transformed from a promising young assistant Kapellmeister to Germany’s most avant-garde composer by the extraordinary premier of Don Juan on 11 November 1889. The work’s provocative subject matter and musical brilliance earned him an instant international recognition as a modernist. After an intense exploration of the symphonic poem, Strauss turned his attention towards the operatic stage. Salome, based on a play by Oscar Wilde, established him as the leading German opera composer of his time. Erotic, murderous and biblical themes combine to reach a climax in Salome’s declaration of love and kiss for the severed head of John the Baptist! Paired with a colorful musical language, including extended tonality, unusual modulations and tonal ambiguities, Salome greatlyenlarged the artistic horizons of the theatrical and musical stage. Rather predictably, censors in London banned the opera until 1907, and Vienna had to wait until 1918 to hear a performance.Strauss remained preoccupied with opera until 1941, when he bade farewell to the stage and returned to the instrumental musical genres of his youth, all culminating in the exalted orchestral songs from the very end of his life.

Maestro Long Yu, the artistic director of the Beijing Music Festival, invites us to discover Richard Strauss through his music. The featured musical selections on this 17th Beijing Music Festival 2014 span the entire spectrum of Richard Strauss’s musical oeuvre. Alongside his youthful 1st Symphony, Violin Concerto and the Burleske, we find the creative genius of a seasoned composer in the Oboe Concerto, the Metamorphosis and the 4 Last Songs. Concordantly, this year’s festival explores the incredible variety and splendor of Strauss’s symphonic poems, represented by Don Quixote, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Death and Transfiguration, SinfoniaDomestica, A Heroes Life, Alpine Symphony and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Additionally, we will be treated to a spectacular and highly topical staged version of Ariadne on Naxos, and a delectable concert performance of Elektra, an intense and startling work that unites the commanding power of Greek tragedy with the unsettling insights of early 20th-century Freudian psychology. And let’s not forget an unforgettable and intimate evening of Strauss lieder, a genre the composer cultivated throughout his career, and one that articulated critical junctures in his life.“Richard Strauss the composer and man juxtapose the trivial and the sublime, and the extraordinary with the everyday.” The key to an understanding of his music may not be found in an attempt to reconcile or resolve these contradictions, but rather in the composer’s own musical celebration of this duality. Most importantly, Strauss recognized the inability of contemporary art to maintain a unified mode of expression, and he eagerly confronted and musically addressed this fundamental issue of modernity. This year’s Beijing Music Festival celebrates a composer who treated musical style in an ahistorical and often highly critical fashion, and we proudly present his idiosyncratic yet magnificently colorfulmusical explorations and conclusions.