- Strauss, Don Quixote (40mins)
- Beethoven, Symphony No.3 (Eroica) (37mins)
On Thursday 30 November, we announced a new vision and period of exploration for the CBSO, centred around reimagining the concert experience, bringing our audience and orchestra closer together, and connecting more with our amazing city.
This is the first concert in which we will test out some new ideas, with every element designed to enhance your listening experience. It uses lighting, projection and staging following a production concept worked out together by Kazuki Yamada and theatre director Tom Morris.
We really hope you enjoy it, and we can’t wait to hear what you think!
"This period of exploration comes from a shared ambition to move forward following the covid pandemic rather than returning to what we have always done before.
Exploring a new form of concert with Tom has been an illuminating process – one which puts the music first and respects the inherently abstract nature of the artform. Together we are discovering ways to answer the most difficult question within orchestral music - ‘what is happening right now?’ - with the aim of shortening the distance between the stage and the audience and deepening our sharing of music.
I can imagine there will be some of you asking for the traditional format – however, I believe it is important to try everything. I, myself, have both an ambitious heart and a conservative heart, but the CBSO is the best partner of my musical life and together I feel we can take risks, experiment and ultimately – we hope – take our audiences along for the ride with us."
Kazuki Yamada, Chief Conductor
"I love music and I love the music which is often called “classical”. But I’m also sometimes frustrated with the ways in which it is shared. The big names throughout history: Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart, were just writing music which carries the maximum feeling that they could possibly fit into a stave. There was no sense that it would become something you needed a degree to enjoy. It was popular music, and it was written to be enjoyed by everyone.
The aim of these experimental concerts is to go back to this principle – and it always starts with the music and the musicians who are interpreting it for performance. I can't do anything in terms of what it looks like until I understand what it means to the players.
For Eroica and Don Quixote, we’ve taken two different approaches. Strauss’ tale of a mad knight is a story, and a mixture of found, filmed and live footage will guide the audience through the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – brilliantly characterised by cellist Eduardo Vassallo and violist Chris Yates. But for Beethoven’s explosive Third Symphony, the presentation is more abstract, using lighting and projection to explore the idea of heroism, what it means for the orchestra, what it meant to Beethoven, and what it might mean for the audience.
For me, live music is fundamentally about the connection between the people on stage and the people who are listening to it – and any change that we make is to improve and enhance this connection."
Tom Morris, Director
Don Quixote, Op.35
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
“He became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them. His fancy grew full of what he used to read about: enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wooings, loves, agonies…in short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the notion…that he should make a knight errant of himself, roaming the world over in quest of adventures.”
You don’t even have to have read Cervantes’ Don Quixote to know the story of the Man of La Mancha. “Tilting at windmills” has entered the language. For Richard Strauss who was a voracious reader, the appeal of Don Quixote must have been irresistible - the more so, as in 1897 he was contemplating a huge “heroic symphony” for supersized orchestra. That would appear in 1898 as Ein Heldenleben. But Strauss could never resist sticking a pin in pomposity – even his own. Especially his own. Alongside Heldenleben he imagined a comic counterpart, intended as a long, knowing laugh at the whole notion of heroism. The subject had popped into Strauss’s head as early as October 1896, while on holiday in Florence. “First idea for a new orchestral piece” he jotted in his diary “Don Quichote – mad, free variations on a knightly theme”.
And that’s exactly what, the following summer, he composed: Don Quixote, Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character. The result almost explains itself: a series of musical shaggy-dog stories about the awkward, courteous, and utterly deluded figure of Don Quixote himself, played by the solo cello. He’s assisted by the rather more down-to-earth figure of his sidekick Sancho Panza. And with introductions out of the way, let Richard Strauss – as witty and worldly as the Don is innocent (yet still, you can’t help feeling, deeply fond of the daft old boy) - take up the tale:
Introduction: With a toylike fanfare, and a graceful bow we meet the old gentleman and his imagined lady-love Dulcinea (a demure oboe solo). His dreams of chivalry grow ever more rambling, muddled and dissonant, until, with an almighty crash, his wits snap and he rides out as…
Theme: Don Quixote, the knight errant (solo cello) and, shortly afterwards, his trusty (if slow-witted) squire Sancho – a rather more down-to-earth duet for viola and tenor tuba.
Variation 1: They meet an army of slow-moving giants (or are they windmills?) The Don charges, with unhappy results.
Variation 2: They encounter the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron, and defeat them in battle. You might think it sounds more like a flock of bleating sheep; we couldn’t possibly comment.
Variation 3: Sancho asks Don Quixote if he’s quite sure he knows what he’d doing. The Don puts him straight – and then falls into a rapturous daydream about the glories of chivalry...
Variation 4: With confidence regained, they charge and scatter a procession of religious penitents (chanting brass). Again, the results are disappointing.
Variation 5: In a moonlit courtyard, a chastened Don Quixote keeps a knightly vigil over his rusty weapons. Warm breezes stir the night.
Variation 6: She might look like a peasant girl, jogging along on mule-back (oboes and tambourine) – but Don Quixote recognises her as his beloved Dulcinea under a spell. She runs a mile.
Variation 7: Knight and squire soar through the air on a flying horse – unaware that it’s a toy and they’ve actually remained very much on the ground. Strauss uses a wind-machine to pull off the deception.
Variation 8: Now they board an enchanted boat on a fast-flowing river – but there’s nothing very magical about the weir they hurtle towards, or the water that drips from them after they’re rescued from the flood.
Variation 9: A pair of wandering friars (bassoons) shuffle along, discussing theology. The Don sees them as wizards – and naturally enough, charges straight at them.
Variation 10: A concerned neighbour, disguised as the Knight of the White Moon, challenges Don Quixote. Unfortunately, his martial prowess is real enough, and after a shattering clash of lances, Quixote trudges sadly home.
Epilogue: Don Quixote’s mind clears. Now old, he thinks over his adventures and – as the orchestra sings a gentle prayer - he dies with a smile on his lips.
Symphony No.3 in E Flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
I. Allegro con brio
II. Marcia funebre (Adagio assai)
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
IV. Allegro molto – Poco Andante, con espressione
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Two chords ring out. Ludwig van Beethoven seizes the score of his newly-completed “Bonaparte Symphony”, tears off its title page and, furious, hurls it to the floor. Few moments in music are more powerful than the opening of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, and few musical christenings have been more dramatic. And just this once, the legend might be true. Early in 1804, Beethoven’s biographer Ferdinand Ries saw with his own eyes the title page of the new symphony. It read, simply: “Bonaparte”.
And Ries was the first to tell Beethoven, some time shortly after 18th May that year, that the great republican had crowned himself Emperor. “He flew into a rage and shouted: ‘So he, too, is just an ordinary man like the rest. Now he will trample on the rights of man, pander only to his own ambitions and become a tyrant!’ Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page, ripped it all the way through, and flung it on the floor.” (The manuscript still shows the damage.) He gave the work a new name: Sinfonia eroica, composta per festiggiare il sovvenire di un grand ‘Uomo – “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”.
The Eroica was never a literal musical portrait of Napoleon, but its revolutionary power was impossible to ignore. “A daring, wild fantasia of inordinate length and extreme difficulty” declared an early Viennese critic. And indeed, in 1802, Beethoven had told the violinist Wenzel Krumpholtz that “I am not satisfied with my music so far. From today I mean to take a new road”.
Those two opening chords blast that road wide open – and within bars, a syncopated dissonance is grinding against the swinging first theme. The movement climaxes with a further series of huge, pounding dissonances, and moments later, as the orchestra holds, breathlessly, for the grand return of the opening melody, the second horn enters seemingly two bars early. But it’s no error, and Beethoven’s point is hard to miss: what was once wrong is now gloriously right.
The tremendous Marcia funebre shouldn’t be taken too literally (even if, on the death of Napoleon, Beethoven wryly commented that “I have already written the music for that tragedy”). Beethoven takes the muffled drums and keening woodwinds of military march music and turn them into an expression of mourning on a universal scale. The brilliant, freewheeling Scherzo is a natural musical reaction to such tragic emotion – and its central Trio section, scored for three horns is both exhilarating and genuinely surprising.
But there’s a bigger surprise in store as, after a grand opening flourish, Beethoven launches his finale with a bare sequence of bass notes. They’re repeated, and the orchestra ventures the odd comment until, with wonderful simplicity, the longawaited theme glides gracefully in – a dance tune he’d written for a ballet score in 1801. With the development of this theme (and particularly the serene, elysian Andante into which it finally broadens) the temptation to put a narrative to Beethoven’s music becomes hard to resist. The ballet was Prometheus; its story, broadly, was the liberation of humanity through art. Beethoven’s jubilant final flourish declares an allegiance higher than any politics.
© Richard Bratby