In yet another intriguing programming maneuver, Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot devoted this weekend’s performances to the subject of heroism: the familiar late 19th century tone poem of Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, and the world première of Pulitzer and Grammy-winning composer David Lang’s symphony without a hero, commissioned by the orchestra.

Ludovic Morlot © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Ludovic Morlot
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Lang describes the origin of his composition as adapted from Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s highly regarded work, Poema bez geroia: “poem without a hero”, considered one of the 20th century’s most exceptional poetic works. Born in Odessa in the late 19th century in what was then the Russian Empire, multiple Nobel Prize nominee Akhmatova was one a few highly regarded poets of Russia’s “Silver Age” and suffered through intensely destructive events in the country’s recent history: the Russian Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, Stalinist terror and the deaths of her loved ones in labor camps.

The strong female voice used in Akhmatova’s poetry, initially lyrical and ultimately tragic, not only reflects her pain, but also what Lang calls the beauty of memory. “We chart the form of a piece through our memory of it,” says the composer. Thus, he creates his work by weaving its fabric out of one sole melody playing against itself for the entire 28 minutes of the piece. The lower strings play the melody as a ground bass, while the other instruments embroider patterns from it.

Morlot encouraged the upper strings and winds to make the most of their variations, but the celeste was the one instrument that was allowed the most creative melodic patterns. Overall, the piece was highly repetitive, and a great deal of focus was required to keep the listener’s attention.

Strauss created Ein Heldenleben using Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony as a mold, intending to write his tone poem specifically portraying 5 different aspects of a hero’s life: by some accounts his own, though he described himself as “no hero”. Unquestionably, he also drew much inspiration and influence from two of the tone poem masters that preceded him: Franz Liszt and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Much of Ein Heldenleben evokes the deeper qualities of Les Préludes and the Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy.

Strauss’s use of horns, the instrument played with unqualified virtuosity by his own father, emphasizes the “great and manly heroism” of the work. Certainly, Morlot provided ample opportunity for the Seattle Symphony’s horn section to shine, but with his gleeful, energetic conducting style he also paved the way for the other instruments of the orchestra to excel, individually and as an ensemble.

The wind and brass renderings were polished to a sheen, but the cello section stood out from their very first theme in the opening measures. Their elated expressions seemed to reflect their joy at being able to play out with abandon, having been fixed on virtually the same few notes and rhythms for much of the previous piece. What could aptly be described as Strauss’s Concerto for Violin was creditably played by the orchestra’s concertmaster.

Morlot and the orchestra succeeded in giving the audience a sweeping panorama of the wide range of emotions and styles encompassed within this work: a perfect mix of heroic and noble, mischievous and sentimental, highlighting but not overemphasizing the more than 30 quotes drawn from the composer’s earlier tone poems. The piece is long, but it also should depict a sense of fun. The maestro allowed for this as well. Within the context of the hero’s conflicts, companionship and finally his resolution to a peaceful end, Morlot closed the circle of the hero’s life with sensitivity and compassion. He struck a balance between the cacophonic elements and the intensely beautiful passages, allowing both to shine through at appropriate intervals, and put down the baton in the latter sections to add breadth to the introspection of the atmosphere.

The intense satisfaction at witnessing a live performance of this phenomenal work has not decreased over the 100-plus years since its première. It is a piece that sounds fresh and new at every hearing. This rendering, no less gratifying, clearly showed that the heroes of the evening were Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony.