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Did Richard Strauss get it right? Texas Music Festival ponders what happens after death with epic Superman opus

Texas Music Festival, Death and Transfiguration, June 2012, orchestra
To lead the students, maestro Lavard Skou-Larsen steps up to the podium and offers much in terms of musical, professional and aesthetic advice. Photo by Joel Luks
Texas Music Festival, Death and Transfiguration, June 2012, strings
Strauss was only 24 years old when we penned Death and Transfiguration. Viola student Salwa Bacher is turning 23 in a month. Photo by Joel Luks
Texas Music Festival, Death and Transfiguration, June 2012, French horns
The 20-minute pièce de résistance portrays the process of dying from the viewpoint of an artist. John Turman, 20, takes on the principal horn spot. Photo by Joel Luks
Texas Music Festival, Death and Transfiguration, June 2012, flutes
Though this piece doesn't technically challenge in same way that Strauss' Don Juan, it  forces emotional maturity. The flute has lovely solos throughout.  Caitrine-Ann Piccini leads the section with Gloria Yun and Kayla Burggraf. Photo by Joel Luks
Texas Music Festival, Death and Transfiguration, June 2012, conducto
"Life in music isn't a profession," Skou-Larsen explains. "It's vocation. If you understand that from the beginning, you'll always be making beautiful music and enjoy your life sharing your art." Photo by Joel Luks

It's often said that good composers borrow, great composers steal. Immortal composers are those from whom great composers steal.

Though some may not be able to hum the melodies of Richard StraussTod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks) or the more popular Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spoke Zarathustra), perhaps you are better familiar with them as tunes that appear in Star Wars, Superman, 2001: A Space Odyssey and possibly every cartoon every presented by Warner Bros.

His music is everywhere. This weekend, you can hear his genius at the Texas Music Festival.

Strauss is the poster child for grandiose, thick, indulgent German Romanticism of the late 19th century. He carried on this programmatic style into the first half of the 20th century, a time when tonality was quickly dispersing in favor of experimentation with atonality, Serialism, alternative notation, even chance and indeterminacy in performance and composition.

 "Life in music isn't a profession. It's vocation. If you understand that from the beginning, you'll always be making beautiful music and enjoy your life sharing your art."

Though he didn't invent the tone poem, he's arguably the one who appropriated the genre through which he studied significant events of the human experience, often mused by poetry and art. 

Strauss was only 24 years old when he penned Death and Transfiguration. The 20-minute pièce de résistance portrays, with a harmonic scheme of C minor shifting to C major, the process of dying from the viewpoint of an artist, from the physical fight to the emotional turmoil to visions, remembrance and finally acceptance. An uprise of violins and woodwinds conveys the soul leaving the earth and reaching an unknown milieu shinning with blinding white light.

Five years after the premiere of Death and Transfiguration, the composer wrote in a letter about his opus:

The sick man lies in bed, asleep, with heavy irregular breathing; friendly dreams conjure a smile on the features of the deeply suffering man; he wakes up; he is once more racked with horrible agonies; his limbs shake with fever.

As the attack passes and the pains leave off, his thoughts wander through his past life; his childhood passes before him, the time of his youth with its strivings and passions, and then, as the pains already begin to return, there appears to him the fruit of his life's path, the conception, the ideal which he has sought to realize, to present artistically, but which he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to be able to accomplish such things. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things which could not be fulfilled here below."

Did Strauss get it right? He has been quoted saying so to his daughter-in-law on his deathbed. 

The fellowship students of the Texas Music Festival orchestra are roughly the age Strauss was when he completed this composition. For the emerging artists, it's a time of transition between the safety of academia to the realities of professional life in a creative field. Though this piece doesn't technically challenge in same way that Strauss' Don Juan or Symphonia Domestica does, per say, it demands, rather it forces an emotional maturity to synthesize the nuances of loss, renewal and the metaphor of survival in the larger sense.

 "Death" is anything that comes to an end. Transfiguration is the unknown that follows.

"Death" is anything that comes to an end. Transfiguration is the unknown that follows.

To lead the students through the third Texas Music Festival Orchestra Concert on Friday and Saturday, maestro Lavard Skou-Larsen, chief conductor of the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss am Rhein and the Georgisches Kammerorchester, steps up to the podium and offers much in terms of musical, professional and aesthetic advice.

"Life in music isn't a profession," Skou-Larsen explains. "It's vocation. If you understand that from the beginning, you'll always be making beautiful music and enjoy your life sharing your art."

He has high expectations and isn't backing off until he awakens just the right affect, energy and wisdom from students.

In this Art & About video adventure (watch the segment above), I speak to twin sisters Salma and Salwa Bachar, French horn player John Turman and Skou-Larsen to glean how they physically and mentally prepare to journey with Strauss, what thoughts inspire the music and how it feels to morph musical notes into narrative poetry.

Texas Music Festival Orchestra "German Masters" program is Friday, 8 p.m., at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion (free) and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. at Moores Opera House ($10-$15). Tickets to Saturday's performance can be purchased online or by calling 713-743-3313. 

On program are also Brahm's Symphony No. 3 and Sibelius Violin Concert in D minor performed by Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artists Competition winner, Xiao Wang.

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