Arts Knoxville (Strauss-Alpine Symphony, 2014)

The journey that was the satisfying second half of the KSO’s evening began in the dim light before dawn, climbed to the mountain heights through forest, glacier, and waterfall, braved untold dangers and a storm, only to return home at day’s end chastened by the ennobling experience. That journey was Richard Strauss’ programmatic tone poem, Eine Alpensinfonie, a fifty-minute-or-so exploration that I personally wouldn’t mind taking again and again.

At the time that Strauss returned to sketching out the work in 1911, a decade had passed since his last orchestral work, the ensuing years being consumed by operatic productions.  A confluence of events probably provided much of the motivation for the work’s creation, not the least of which was the death of his friend and musical adversary, Gustav Mahler. Inspiration, too, came from his part-time home; Strauss kept a villa in the Bavarian mountain village of Garmisch.

Within the 22 sections of Eine Alpensinfonie, arranged chronologically from dawn to nightfall, are instrumental textures and colors of every possible description, from resplendent bursts of brass, to clarinet and flute birdcalls, to pastoral violin passages and cowbells, to gnarled and twisted undergrowth passages, to a harp waterfall and a wind machine storm. While the fascinating variety of instrumental effects in the KSO’s textural painting was endlessly entertaining, conductor Lucas Richman and orchestra seemed to bask in something greater: the work’s ability to draw the listener in to willing acceptance of lyrical descriptions twisted with modernist tonalities.

I enjoyed conductor Richman’s epic take on the work, giving each section’s descriptive textures the proper exposure and emphasis, light and darkness. I confess that I would have preferred a bit more in the way of nuanced tempo and dynamics to heighten the storytelling and balance out the inevitable gravitational pull of fortissimo playing. Nevertheless, the KSO’s Eine Alpensinfonie was a journey worth every minute of the dizzying and dazzling narrative.

~ Alan Sherrod
November 15, 2014