By Chris Gray
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Most strangers to classical music don't realize it, but they really do know Richard Strauss. If nothing else, they're sure to recognize the pounding drums of the opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra, immortalized by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not to mention scads of TV commercials that have relegated the majestic bars to background music since the sixties. Hard-core film buffs won't have trouble recalling tragic strains from Beim Schlafengehen ("At Bedtime"). The mournful melody recurs in Peter Weir's A Year of Living Dangerously when Linda Hunt's character of Billy Kwan feels alone and defeated. He sits beneath photos of Jakarta's poverty, urgently pecking Tolstoy's oft-repeated words on a manual typewriter. Over and over: "What then must we do? What then must we do?"
Die-hard opera fans probably love Strauss best in Der Rosenkavalier ("Knight of the Rose"), a story about secret love affairs among the well-to-do. This musical comedy is full of unforgettable waltzes in the 19th-century style. When musicologists talk of the German composer, they have a hard time pegging him to a single period. His body of opera alone reveals musical modes spanning three centuries. Was Strauss a classicist? A modernist? A romantic?
Da Camera of Houston has seized upon this question of Strauss's eclectic genius. The composer's multifaceted work and more intimate side are revealed during a one-night show of his chamber music and songs on Friday, January 29, at the Wortham's Cullen Theater. Richard Strauss: A 20th-Century Enigma features soprano Camellia Johnson in her Houston debut with selected orchestral songs and a few of the famous Four Last Songs. Da Camera regulars on various strings and piano will play selected pieces by Strauss and his own favorite composer, Mozart.
Johnson's recitals of Strauss melodies are often broadcast on National Public Radio and other stations. She's recognized as a unique interpreter of his songs. She talked about a couple -- "Cacilie" and Ruhe, Meine Seele ("Rest, My Soul") -- that the composer gave his beloved wife, Pauline de Ahna, as a wedding present in 1894. " 'Cacilie' is very declamatory. Ruhe is more reserved, sober in a somber setting. Strauss writes songs so beautifully for the female voice. I've always included them in recitals."
The uplifting, dissonant lyric Befreit ("Be Free") is her favorite because of how it's put together in three sections. "It's a big ol' song. You really get to sing out. There's a lot of line and a lot of expansion," Johnson says. "I think that he [Strauss] wrote for my kind of voice." After thinking it over, she chose the words melodic, lyrical and semidark to describe this voice. Her last adjective particularly fits the sound of Zueignung ("Dedication"), the finale she'll perform in Houston. It's an intense, dramatic vocal, like a swan song that lasts barely over a minute. Johnson calls it "short and to the point."
Strauss's affinity with voices like Johnson's sprang from his long love affair with his wife, a renowned singer in her day. She knew him first as a pupil and later influenced him to write a number of works that captured her whimsy and storminess. A strong, formidable woman, she didn't hesitate to speak her mind and was notorious for embarrassing her husband in public. According to Strauss biographer Kurt Wilhelm, she had no qualms about scribbling blunt reactions such as "rotten garbage" and "lousy composition" in the margins of his manuscripts.
In addition to the songs, the Da Camera program features Strauss's favorite work by Mozart, String Quintet in g minor, K. 517, written in 1787. The gorgeous piece in four movements is a fitting reminder of his particular kinship with Mozart as a conductor of his operas. For Munich audiences after the turn of the century, Strauss did as much to revitalize Mozart's operas as the movie Amadeus did for the current generation.
Strauss's "String Sextet from Capriccio" is a special excerpt from the composer's last one-act opera. In it he directly addresses the theme that dogged him his entire life: the interplay of words and music in opera. The entire action is a dramatized conversation in which a rivalry between two men is symbolized by their respective artistic talents. Flamand (the tenor) is a musician, and Olivier (the baritone) is an actor. Guest artists who will perform the sextet "Flamand Composes for Countess Madeleine" (the soprano) include Ida Levin on violin, Scott St. John and Ira Weller on viola, Paul Katz and Julia Lichten on cello and Pedja Muzijevic on piano. Levin and Muzijevic will open the show with Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat Major, op. 18. This bold three-movement piece is a testament to the classical and early romantic influences of Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.
Da Camera Executive Director Mary Lou Aleskie cringes at the thought that Strauss: A 20th-Century Enigma plays the same night as A Little Night Music in an adjoining theater. However, she hopes the Houston Grand Opera show won't steal away too many opera lovers, since the Strauss program is aimed at a broader audience. "People don't hear his chamber music very often," Aleskie says. "[These works] give us a chance to take a look at the different facets of his interest and his character."
Richard Strauss: A 20th-Century Enigma will be performed Friday, January 29, at 8 p.m. at the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Theater Center. For more information, call (713)524-5050.