23 Oct 2017
Tuneful TravelTuneful Travel

Flashback to Bugs Bunny and Dracula: Des Moines Symphony’s Oct. 22, 2017 concert

The weekend of October 21 and 22 marked the Second Program in the Des Moines Symphony’s Masterworks Subscription Series. The theme for the Symphony’s 80th season is “Music in Motion”, and selections are made from music written for dance. Music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” thrilled the audience with its familiar melodies, as did the pieces performed in the first half: Wagner’s “Overture to Tannhauser” and Richard Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration.” 

Concert Prelude Talk

I slipped into the Des Moines Civic Center just in time to catch the informative pre-concert presentation by Arlene DeVries. In these free talks which occur 45 minutes before the start of each performance, the retired educator and singer mixes interesting tidbits about the composers with clips of the music which illustrate her points. These talks always give me something to listen for in the upcoming performance, and this does add depth to my enjoyment of the music.

However, as I listened to her talk about Wagner, composer of the first piece “Overture to Tannhauser”, and his propensity to be in debt and have affairs, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Is a composer’s personal behavior (good or bad) relevant to the listener’s appreciation of their composition?

Arguably, the answer is No, the music should stand on its own. The same can be said of books, paintings, or other works of art. While it’s interesting to know an artist’s background, sometimes this can color my appreciation of their creation. For instance, Hitler was a big fan of Wagner, who died in 1883 which was 6 years before Hitler was even born. Certainly, Hitler’s evil propensities should not be imputed to Wagner, but just knowing about this fandom tends to linger in the recesses of my brain. Sometimes enjoying the musical experience in the moment requires leaving all the contextual background and details of a composer’s bio completely in the background.

Richard Wagner’s “Overture to Tannhauser” (1845)

The Symphony is led by Joseph Giunta, who is fun to watch as he bounces and shakes the baton animatedly while conducting. He did not use any scores during this performance even though the Symphony had not performed 2 of the 3 pieces before.  Maestro Giunta shared that this was the longest overture to an opera, and the melody was quite familiar.

Perhaps those of you who, like me, grew up on Saturday morning cartoons will recognize the Looney Tune interpretation of the Tannhauser Overture:


Richard Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24” (1890)

Maestro Giunta shared that this was one of his favorite pieces, and I learned from the Preconcert Talk that this piece was in the style of a Tone Poem which progresses throughout the length of the music, as compared to a recurring theme or motif which repeats throughout other compositions. Although Strauss was only 26 when he composed this piece, it represents a man on his deathbed reviewing his life and ultimately dying. Giunta pointed out the throbbing drums at the beginning which sound like an irregular heartbeat, the “gongs of Death”, and the ascending tones in the high strings which symbolize the man’s soul ascending to Heaven. I enjoyed the 2 harps, the woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet), and beautiful violin solo in the opening section contrasted with the dark tones of the double basses.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Music from Swan Lake (1877)

To me, one of the most memorable takeaways from this concert was how the music from over 100 years ago was still accessible to the movie-going public. Swan Lake is a great example of how music transcends borders. When I heard the Waltz my mind immediately flashed back to the ice skating sequence at the opening of Gorky Park, even though I saw that movie over 30 years ago. I also remembered the oboe theme from the early Universal Studios Monster movies so that whenever I hear this theme I immediately picture the mists of a Dracula or Mummy movie.

Pretty fitting so close to Halloween, right?

Here is a full recording of Swan Lake:

The Symphony played this long piece well, and all soloists performed masterfully. As soon as the conductor’s hands dropped at the end of the final note, someone shouted “Bravo!” and the audience erupted in applause. During a long standing ovation, Maestro Giunta moved throughout the orchestra, shaking hands with Jennifer Wohlenhaus (Principal oboist), Erin Brooker-Miller (harpist), Jonathan Sturm (concertmaster and Principal violin) and Julie Sturm (Principal cello), and grabbing Principal trumpet player Derek Stratton’s face and planting a kiss on one cheek! What a great ending to a fabulous concert!

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