"In the case of the Wagner and the Strauss, you are really getting to see the infrastructure and bare bones of the music much more clearly"
In music, word painting refers to those emotion-stirring lines that evoke the subject matter or the poetry on which the notes are based. These days, we might connect them more with popular music, those earworm-triggering songs that thump out anger or melt with love, but word painting has a long history.
The first four pieces of this program are all thematic: they are about love and death and sorrow, each evoked in the composer’s signature style. The Dowland and the Bach are quietly grounding and offer us musical resolution. The Wagner and the Strauss are the opposite: sweeping drama and experimentation in dissonance. Wagner’s famous “Tristan chord” is still heart-stopping.
In curating the program, Timo-Veikko ‘Tipi’ Valve aimed to make us listen to the music, really listen, and to this end he is making some unusual links and some unusual leaps. He is running the pieces in the first half together and, instead of ordering the works chronologically, he is alternating the eras. He has also chosen “transformations” – he dislikes the term “arrangement” – of the major pieces, written for only six or seven string-players. Both the Wagner, a prelude to an opera with full symphonic forces in the pit, and the Strauss, originally written for a 23-piece chamber orchestra, are scaled down to their most essential inner workings.
“I would argue that, especially in the case of the Wagner and the Strauss, you are really getting to see the infrastructure and bare bones of the music much more clearly,” he says. “So the message should be more laser-like and therefore more understandable.”
For instance, he says, the Strauss becomes less of a shouting match and more of a conversation. “In the more commonly known version, you have 23 people on stage, some playing the same part on opposite sides of the stage, so it becomes a competition, a means of survival. Now that we’ve paired it back to the original seven voices, you can actually hear the conversation held in a normal voice.”
The plan across all four pieces is to give them a level playing field. When the dissonance of the Tristan chord follows immediately on from the comparatively naive simplicity of the Dowland, it’s like time travel, and the composers’ essential musical ideas and common musical language become clear. Tipi refers to the first half of the program as a thought-provoking “degustation menu”. Following the turbulence of this first half, the return to Mozart’s grounded elegance and clear classical form in the second half is the “dessert”.
This piece is an excerpt from our concert program, which is available for free at each performance.
Transforming Strauss & Mozart tours 8-19 September, with concerts at Canberra, Melbourne, Wollongong, Adelaide and Sydney. Full details and tickets via the link below.