Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie, or An Alpine Symphony, as it’s known in English, is hardly a sparsely scored work; it uses a heckelphone, which is similar to an English horn, eight French horns, two tubas, 16 offstage brass instruments, cowbells, a wind machine, a thunder machine and all of the standard orchestral instruments. It was the last of Strauss’s collection of tone poems, which tell a story or evoke a landscape through one continuous, symphonic movement. This particular tone poem uses 22 scenes to depict an episode in Strauss’s youth when he and a group of friends climbed one of the Alps, lost their way and were caught in a storm on the way down the mountain.
Eine Alpensinfonie is a massive undertaking for any orchestra owing to its thick instrumentation, complexity and sheer length – it clocks in at just under an hour. It may be an unusual choice for a festival orchestra, but the Texas Music Festival and conductor Carl St. Clair are up to the challenge.
“It’s been a great honor to be a frequent guest conductor of the Texas Music Festival because I’ve been able to see how this festival has grown and blossomed,” says St. Clair.
“There’s been real, dynamic growth in the quality of the festival and what it represents. How it performs is just an incredible success story.”
St. Clair will lead the orchestra, which is made up of undergraduate and graduate music students from around the world, in a week of rehearsals and the grand finale concert on July 2. He views Eine Alpensinfonie as not only a grand concert piece but also a declaration of the festival’s high musical standards.
“It’s pretty indicative that this festival is closing with a work as grand and complicated and wonderful as the Alpensinfonie – it’s indicative of the festival’s prowess and quality,” says St. Clair.
The other piece on the program is W. A. Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for four wind soloists and orchestra, featuring Texas Music Festival faculty members Leone Buyse, flute; Jonathan Fischer, oboe; Richard Beene, bassoon; and Robert Johnson, horn. The piece is a cross between a concerto and a symphony, with extensive wind solos and the orchestra serving an accompaniment-oriented role.
The works are vastly different, but the conductor views them as a perfect combination of styles.
“Strauss and Mozart go incredibly well together. They complement one another by having contrasting musical palettes – one having a classical nature with a reduced string section and small wind section, the other painting an incredible dawn-to-dusk voyage up the Alps. It’s probably one of the most vivid tone poems composed by anybody,” says St. Clair.
“To say you love one or the other more is like saying you love this child or that one more. They’re both incredible musical jewels, and I look forward to both.”
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Of course, the goal of any music festival is primarily to educate up-and-coming musicians and give them opportunities to experience professional-level repertoire. St. Clair says that concert programs like this one are what attracts world-class musicians to Houston for this four-week festival.
“As young college-level students start looking for summer programs, there are just a few things that come into consideration, and one is the repertoire that they’ll play. Sitting side-by-side with incredible wind faculty or playing Alpensinfonie isn’t something you’re going to do at any college. It’s something that will enhance your growth and challenge you,” says the conductor.
Luckily, we also get to experience the fruit that the young musicians have cultivated in just one week’s hard work, and it’s a fruit that you certainly won’t want to miss.
The grand finale performance is at 7:30 p.m. July 2 at the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston, 4800 Calhoun, 713-743-3313, uh.edu/class/music/tmf/. $15 to $25, no one under age 5 allowed. Pre-concert entertainment and lecture begin at 6:30 p.m.