Last fall, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra opened a season-long exploration of heroes and heroism with a concert featuring Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony. This weekend, YSO concludes this exploration with a late Romantic masterwork by Richard Strauss that was conceived with Beethoven’s symphony in mind: “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”).
Composed in 1898, by which time the 34-year-old composer already had achieved significant fame and wealth, it is one of the landmark achievements of post-Wagner orchestral literature, redefining the limits of what orchestras were capable of in expressing and pushing the musicians of the (very large) orchestra to their limits.
Strauss did not hide the source of his inspiration, even setting this tone poem — a work directly evocative of a nonmusical idea or story — in the same key as Beethoven’s symphony; but where Beethoven had initially written his “Eroica” in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, Strauss’ hero appears to be the composer himself.
Though he claimed to represent a generalized hero, the six contrasting movements seem to refer to various aspects of his own life, from a humorous take on nitpicking music critics to “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” in which he quotes many of his own earlier compositions. He is reported to have remarked, perhaps not entirely in jest, “I fail to see why I cannot make a symphony about myself. I find myself no less interesting than Napoleon or Alexander.”
Whatever the composer’s programmatic intent, it is the musicians of the orchestra who will be the real heroes of this performance. At least for strings and brass, this is one of the pieces most often required in professional orchestra auditions at the highest levels. If a musician can play this music well, chances are the rest of the repertoire will not be a problem.
An entire movement depicts Strauss’ wife, represented by solo violin. This is the premier concertmaster solo in all of orchestral literature, to be performed Saturday by YSO concertmaster Denise Dillenbeck. The acrobatic opening two measures of the horn part span two and a half octaves, embodying heroism in the sweep of the melodic line and the difficulty of its performance.
Strauss used the horn (there will be nine of them on stage!) to represent himself as the hero, and it probably is not unrelated that his father, Franz Strauss, was a virtuoso hornist and the principal in the Bavarian court opera.
Opening Saturday evening’s program will be Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” written to commemorate Russia’s heroic victory over Napoleon’s invading Grand Armée in that year. Featuring cannon fire and battling patriotic melodies, it was immediately more popular than the composer’s more earnest symphonies and ballets (much to his dismay), and it has remained so, voted 2018’s “most popular piece of classical music” by listeners of Classic FM in the United Kingdom.
The program also features the YSO debut of Moscow-born pianist Natasha Paremski, who will perform the Second Concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich was alternately celebrated as a cultural hero and decried as an “enemy of the people” in the Stalin-era Soviet Union. This cheerful work, composed after Stalin’s death, was written as a 19th birthday present to his son Maxim, who performed the premiere.
• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.
If you go
What:”Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”), with conductor Lawrence Golan and pianist Natasha Paremski.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: The Capitol Theatre, 19 S. Third St., Yakima.
Tickets: $9-$59; 509-853-2787, www.ysomusic.org.