Light as Sound in Transcendent Mendelssohn and Strauss

United StatesUnited States Mendelssohn, John Adams, R. Strauss: Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Performing Arts Hall, Canton, Ohio, 23.01.2016 (TW)

Mendelssohn: Symphony No.5 in D Major, Op. 107 (1830)
John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1985)
R. Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896)

Among the many ingredients that make the Canton Symphony Orchestra an ensemble to treasure, arguably none is more vital than the relationship between Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann and his musicians. In the past, I have often noted Zimmermann’s uncanny ability to draw out particularly radiant sonorities from the players, in a one-for-all and all-for-one process that creates spiritual alchemy—emotional, illuminating experiences. Light can surely have `a sound, and it was glowing again at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall.

My sense is that Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation,” remains relatively under-appreciated when compared to the composer’s more “mature” works,  such as No. 4 (“Italian”) or No.3 (“Scottish”). (The numerical assignation of No. 5 is chronologically misleading due to publication dates.) Critics of the day considered the Fifth too programmatic and melodically unsatisfying, and Mendelssohn himself wrote, “I sometimes wonder that I did not make a better job of it.”

But the CSO breathed invigorating energy into the work, with a palpable reverence for its ethereality. Threaded throughout was a detailed attention to the strings, navigating dramatic shifts in color and texture. This was hardly melodically unsatisfying. By the time the entire wind section and lower strings were proudly singing Martin Luther’s majestic hymn, “Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress)” in the triumphal fourth movement, I felt immersed in something wholly sublime.

After intermission, the program shifted to overdrive with John Adams’ Short Drive in a Fast Machine. The orchestra’s exhilarating articulation of wildly diverse tones and textures was propelled by the wood block’s steady quarter-note tapping, driving the polyrhythmic exclamations like an incessant piston, and pulsing with wickedly accelerating excitement through the orchestra.

Enhancing the sonic exuberance was its accompaniment, The Earth—An HD Odyssey, featuring high-definition videos and images compiled from NASA’s shuttle missions, the International Space Station, and orbiting satellites – all projected on a large screen above the orchestra. This stunning visual component, commissioned in 2012 by the Houston Symphony, is the sequel to The Planets—An HD Odyssey, which the CSO performed to considerable acclaim in 2014, and was developed in collaboration with the celebrated documentary filmmaker, Duncan Copp.

The meticulously synchronized visuals had a mesmerizing effect during the finale, Richard Strauss’s epic Also Sprach Zarathustra. Strauss was inspired by the monumental 1895 prose poem by philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, who found inspiration in the mystical teachings of the ancient Persian religious leader, Zoroaster. Of course many are familiar with the dramatic, brassy opening, thanks to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but perhaps less acquainted with the subsequent episodes of Nietzche’s vision for the evolution of a godless Ubermensch (Superman).

I don’t recall an occasion when the CSO was more powerful or finessed in balancing the work’s challenging intricacies, conflicting tonalities, and mood changes—from brooding drama to gentler lyricism. The attention to aural detail in the Mendelssohn was even more pronounced here—hypnotic and compelling—and transcending Nietzche’s blustery atheism and convoluted philosophizing. Despite Strauss’s “…homage to Nietzche’s genius,” in the end, what resonated most was something profoundly divine.

Tom Wachunas


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