Richard Strauss was only 34 when he completed his sprawling tone poem "Ein Heldenleben", A Hero’s Life. However, he was already a seasoned and accomplished composer who had tasted of the trials and vicissitudes of a life spent in music. There is little doubt that the hero in question in this work is himself—or, perhaps, Strauss was creating a paean to all musicians and composers who continue to dedicate themselves to their work in spite of whatever obstacles they encounter.
In 1898 Strauss may have had little idea of the challenges he would have to face later in life. The horrors of two world wars lay ahead, and little could he have foreseen that members of his own family would face death and imprisonment. Knowing that his daughter-in-law was Jewish—and that therefore his grandchildren were legally Jews—Strauss nevertheless took a position as President of the State Music Bureau in Nazi Germany, for which he was often soundly castigated. However, Strauss never officially joined the Nazi party and often expressed disgust for their policies. When his daughter-in-law was imprisoned, Strauss was able to use his position to secure her release; when her family was sent to Theresienstadt, Strauss made several trips to the camp to plead for their release, but was unsuccessful, and they perished in the camp. His only consolation was that his grandchildren, whom he adored, and their mother were able to survive. Strauss certainly learned firsthand that sometimes any of us can be called to heroism; how we respond is up to us.
Stephane Deneve expressed his admiration and respect for the orchestra and the selected works in his opening remarks to the concert, and his conducting clearly displayed his high regard. Deneve ably held together the vast orchestra required by Strauss (the score calls for eight horns, two harps, tenor and bass tubas, as well as full sections in all areas). It was clear that Deneve took joy in his work and mission. One got the feeling that he established and maintained personal contact with each musician onstage, which made for an incredibly charged performance.
We have come to take balance for granted between orchestra and soloist, and among the sections of the orchestra, with the St. Louis Symphony, yet balance was particularly well established in this performance. Even in the quietest passages of the concerto it was possible to hear the piano clearly, and all instruments were audibly present even in the most thunderous sections of the Strauss. The new seating arrangement, with violas and cellos in the middle of the stage and violins on both sides, may have been a contributing factor to the excellent balance that was produced.
The concert opened with a new work by Patrick Harlin entitled "Rapture", inspired by the emotional euphoria that has been noted in cave explorers after they have been deprived of light and circadian rhythms for long periods of time. The work is bold, quick and syncopated, employing a wide orchestral palette, and offers enough elements of traditional tonality to engage the audience. Being a new work, one got the impression that the orchestra was not fully settled in with this piece, but meeting a new piece of music is like meeting a new person; it takes time to get acquainted. Harlin has a long career ahead of him, and we will surely be hearing more from him.