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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010

Classical Music as Tour Guide

Frankly Music opens its season with Tchaikovsky, Strauss

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One of the best attributes of Classical music is how it can paint an aural picture of a time and place—more than mere travelogue—giving the listener a sense of what the composer experienced so long ago and far away. Two very divergent such musical portraits will be presented by Frankly Music through the string sextet genre in their first concert of the season.

Like many of his fellow Russian composers, Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) reveled in his home country’s folk idioms and traditions, but escaped its frigid winters for warmer climes—locations that inspired gloriously colorful music. An 1880 trip to Rome, for example, brought about his orchestral gem, Capriccio Italien, Op. 45.

When the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society commissioned a string sextet from him for their 1889-90 season, he was deeply involved in composing his latest opera, Pique Dame.The Society’s deadline was missed, but on a subsequent trip to Florence he found the proper inspiration and focus. The result was Souvenir de Florence in D Major, Op. 70. The work has the overall sunny disposition one would expect, but not without its moments of Russian pensiveness. The first movement is cheerful and possessive of a bubbly coda, the second lyrical in mood, the third a scherzo with a melancholy streak, and the rondo-sonata finale inclusive of lively folk-like melodies.

Toward the end of his life, Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) music took on much more of a personal and philosophical tone. Was it the advancing years that made him so reflective, or was it the fact that he had lived to see his beloved Germany throttled in two world wars? Perhaps some of both.

Among the most striking of his late works is Metamorphosen, Study for Solo Strings, Op. 142 of 1945—a meditation on the bombing of Dresden that took some 130,000 lives. This work is so far removed from his extroverted and exuberant tone poems like Till Eulenspiegel, Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben that it almost appears to be a work of some other composer entirely. In contrast to those earlier works, Metamorphosen is wholly tragic and more intimate than anything Strauss had ever composed. It unfolds in one long movement, and introduces a number of motifs that gradually—as the piece’s name suggests—transform into different themes. Though composed for string orchestra, the work achieves an even more intimate feel in its sextet guise.

Frankly Music—violinists Frank Almond and Ilana Setapen; violists Toby Appel and Anthony Devroye; cellists Edward Arron and Peter Thomas; and bassist Zachary Cohen—performs these two works Sept. 27-28 at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.