THE MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA'S 20th Viennese Sommerfest got off in grand style last week with much waltzing and fanfare courtesy of the Strausses. There was moonlit dancing in the "Marktplatz" (Peavey Plaza), an occasional lederhosen-clad gentleman, and enough sausage to warrant an on-site angioplasty booth. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the death of Richard Strauss, and although the composer was not himself a native of Vienna, it was auspicious timing for the festival-opening Strauss program conducted by British luminary Jeffrey Tate.
On the drizzly and humid morning after the opening performance, however, backstage felt a bit like a sedated circus. Spirits were perhaps dampened by news that the orchestra's recently re-signed music director, Eiji Oue, would be shifting his career to the continent (he'll assume a post at the Radio-Philharmonie Hannover after the 2002 season). Or perhaps the musicians had settled into the festival's frenetic routine and resigned themselves to the fact that they would be performing nearly 20 programs for the entire month of July with little rehearsal time and less rest. (Chamber ensembles and visiting groups will add nearly two dozen more concerts.)
In the wings an hour before an afternoon reprise of the Strauss program, violinists were rosining their bows, dressed in white tuxedos that collectively gave them the aspect of a waiters' social club. Beautiful black Steinways were dutifully tuned to order for the afternoon's featured pianist, William Wolfram. The Orchestra's virtuoso first trumpet, Manny Laureano, was holed up in a stairwell blowing precise little runs on his horn. "Chaos is just part of the ballgame," he explained. "It's always been part of it. It's a hectic time.
"The most important thing," he continued, "is knowing what program you're supposed to be playing. You just focus on your duties, say hello to your colleagues, maybe share a joke or two. You've got to present a good mood to the audience."
As Laureano continued his warm-up routine, the afternoon's patrons filed noisily in from the rain-soaked plaza. It was a generally well-preserved audience, and aside from a small, somber party who had paid $50 to sit onstage behind the percussion section, they seemed in decent spirits. Amid the bustle backstage, stage manager Timothy Eickholt was racing around to get chairs beneath their proper seats. Although there was much to be done, he took a few measures' rest to display his collection of batons, which he constructs in his spare time to the specification of every maestro who passes through town. "Everyone likes something different," he said, holding up a short, unadorned stick signed by Eiji Oue. "I make some of balsa wood or birch and sometimes do the handles with cork. Some like it longer or shorter; they all like a different style of stick."
Incidentally, Sigmund Freud was a native of Vienna. This was no time for municipal history, however, for the show was about to begin. In the nick of time, Tate appeared from behind a curtain to grasp his baton and take the stage. He wielded his stick with a firm yet delicate grip, pinky finger extended in the proper British style.
The program began with Richard Strauss's Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare, followed closely by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Tales of Strauss. Then the fetching German soprano Juliane Banse appeared in an emerald-green gown to sing sad, pretty German songs until she herself looked as though she were about to break into tears. The highlight, however, came after intermission, with Strauss's waltz-inflected Burleske in D Minor.
Although Richard Strauss was not native to Vienna or its musical culture (he is no relation to the earlier Viennese Strauss dynasty), his Burleske was certainly influenced by standards such as Tales from the Vienna Woods. At the time he began working on the piece that would become the Burleske, Strauss was a conductor-in-training at the Meiningen Orchestra under the tutelage of Hans von Bülow. In 1884, at the tender age of 20, Strauss got his trial by fire as a conductor. Von Bülow pressed him into service at a moment's notice with the stipulation that in order to keep the orchestra fresh he should not rehearse. "With a sigh," Strauss later wrote to his father, "I submitted and, without ever having held a baton in my hand before, I got through the performance with great success."
Oddly enough, the waltz was often considered immoral and ignoble--it was, perhaps, a lambada for the Gilded Age. To the credit of the Minnesota Orchestra and William Wolfram, who kicked and drove joyously at his Steinway during the late cadenza of the Burleske, the piece's ascending themes and mischievously cascading sweeps regained a bit of their sprightly and seductive luster. To do so with a piece by a composer whom far too many people consider a cut-rate Wagner is a great success indeed.
By the time the performance ended, the weather had cleared nicely, and the audience streamed out into the plaza to wait in line for sausages and pickles-on-a-stick from Kramarczuk's mobile meat dispenser. The music was over for the afternoon and even the wagging of pickles in 3/4 time could not bring it back.
Sommerfest continues 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, July 14 (with a reprise concert 11:00 a.m. Thursday) with David Alan Miller conducting the premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis's Concierto de "Dance Hits" and David Dzubay's Last Dance.
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