Many composers, nearing the end of their careers, looked back reflectively on their own lives, whether deliberately or intuitively, and contemplated their mortality. Late works of seven great composers‹Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, and Berio‹will be examined throughout the month of January by The Philadelphia Orchestra during its Late Great Works Festival. Conducted by Music Director Christoph Eschenbach, the Festival gives insight into moving stories of human life and creativity that inspired some of the most prominent compositions in the orchestral repertoire, works that are explored through the Festival's concerts and related events.
Each piece performed during the Festival contains reflections of the composer's life, his final years, or his period in history. Mahler's Ninth Symphony, his last completed symphony, was perhaps his most intense and personal. The work is music of pessimistic despair and defeat, in which "death is real and omnipotent," in the words of scholar Deryck Cooke, "and the farewell is a heartbroken one."
In Richard Strauss's later works, he pushed away the dramas and excesses of his earlier music, and looked back towards his beloved Beethoven and Mozart to write neo-classical works of autumnal beauty. Strauss's Metamorphosen was composed in mid-1945 as a response to the Allied bombing of Germany's major cities. "I am in a mood of despair," he wrote to a friend that year. "The Goethehaus, the world's greatest sanctuary, destroyed! My beautiful Dresden, Weimar, Munich‹all gone!" The trauma for the 80-year-old composer lay not just in the bombed-out shell of his nation, but in the loss of his entire world. His Oboe Concerto was written immediately after the war, at the suggestion of John de Lancie, who would later go on to become principal oboe of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Mozart's late works, although not written consciously as last statements, have a serene aura about them that seems to foreshadow his impending illness. This is most beautifully embodied in his Clarinet Concerto, composed two months before his death, and in The Magic Flute, his last and most enigmatic opera.
Tchaikovsky's Sixth, and final, Symphony (he died only days after its premiere) is full of turmoil and anger, railing against a life of shattered dreams and looking ahead to the anguish of Mahler. Describing the work's inception, Tchaikovsky wrote, "The program is permeated with subjective feeling, and quite often on my journey to Odessa, composing it in my mind, I wept copiously."
Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, is a transcendent spiritual masterpiece, which raises artistic creativity to the level of religious iconography and seems to resolve the conflicting philosophical and religious ideas that concerned Wagner throughout his life. The third act of the opera is paired on the same program with Luciano Berio's Stanze, his last completed work. Berio, who died in May 2003, set to music five poems that inspire the emotional settings for the "rooms" of this musical journey through death, in a search for God.
Presented by UBS, the Late Great Works Festival also provides the Orchestra with an opportunity to collaborate with other Philadelphia cultural institutions to explore the universality of ideas and emotions expressed by great artists. Maestro Eschenbach will participate in a public discussion with Martin Luther King III, son of the great civil rights leader, at the Montgomery Auditorium of the Free Library on Friday, January 7, at 7 p.m., for a discussion of how Dr. King's life experience and beliefs were crystallized in his later writings and speeches‹what inspired Dr. King and how he made words resonate so strongly in us. The focus on Dr. King's accomplishments as a great writer/orator will complement the Orchestra's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Concert on January 10, which is part of the Late Great Works Festival as well.
Eschenbach also joins Philadelphia Museum of Art Director and CEO Anne d'Harnoncourt at the Museum on Saturday, January 15, at 2:30 p.m., to discuss late works by various artists in the Museum and explore how they reflect aspects of the artists' lives. Both of these discussions are free and will be moderated by WHYY-91FM's Elisabeth Perez-Luna. They will be accompanied by musical examples, including participation by members of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
As part of this collaboration, Philadelphia Orchestra subscribers and Philadelphia Museum of Art and Free Library of Philadelphia members receive 10% off Museum admission or Orchestra concert ticket prices during the month of January if they show subscriber or membership cards at the Kimmel Center or Art Museum box office. (Some restrictions apply.)
Audiences are invited to take advantage of a series of PreConcert Conversations and Post-Concert Events that will be held during the Late Great Works Festival. Part of the Orchestra's new "Raise the Invisible Curtain" initiative, the interactive PreConcert Conversations will involve musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra and Orchestra Music Animateur Thomas Cabaniss. Each PreConcert Conversation explores a work from the concert program through musical activities that are designed to help audiences deepen their engagement in the concert experience.
Post-Concert Events will be held after four of the concerts in the Festival. Eschenbach developed Postlude Recitals to complement the evening's orchestral program when he was music director of the Ravinia Festival. Building on that concept, the Late Great Works Festival's Post-Concert Events include recitals and discussions after select performances.
For more information about the Orchestra's Late Great Works Festival, visit the Orchestra's web site at www.philorch.org.