Renée Fleming - Program Notes cover

Renée Fleming - Program Notes


Tonight's performance features one of the greatest operatic sopranos of all time, the legendary Renée Fleming. She makes an exclusive Orange County appearance in this exceptional concert with the Pacific Symphony. Tonight's program offers selections from Richard Strauss’s hauntingly beautiful Four Last Songs, as well as beloved popular favorites from the Broadway stage and the wonderful world of opera.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for tonight's concert. You'll be automatically linked to the next at the end.
To learn more about tonight's Guest Artist Renée Fleming, please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, please click here.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars on 1 review

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Renée Fleming - Program Notes

Tonight's Program


Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Four Last Songs, TrV 296

Frühling (Spring)


Beim Schlafengehen (At Bedtime)

Im Abendrot (At Sunset)

Renée Fleming


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio, K. 384

Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846-1916)


Renée Fleming

Stefano Donaudy (1879-1925)

O Del Mio Amato Ben

Renée Fleming

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)


Renée Fleming

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Overture to Candide

Richard Rodgers (1902-1979)

Selections from The King and I Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

I Whistle a Happy Tune

Something Wonderful

Shall We Dance

Renée Fleming

Four Last Songs

To appreciate the achievement that is the capstone of Richard Strauss’ long and illustrious career—his Four Last Songs—we must appreciate how masterfully Strauss fashioned his career as a composer of vocal music over the course of the six decades that preceded this suite for voice and orchestra.

In Europe, and particularly in the musical tradition of ”middle Europe”—roughly Austria, Germany and Hungary—the classical composer is viewed with a sense of intense proprietorship, an essential part of every citizen’s cultural patrimony, and the ”great composer” is a national figurehead.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Strauss shaped his oeuvre and his public image in a way that secured his status as a composer whose greatness would be recognized by his public. His Four Last Songs provide a sublime and reflective valediction befitting such an artist.

To groom his prodigiously talented son for greatness, Strauss’ father, Franz—himself a renowned musician—ensured that Richard received a first-rate musical education, but embargoed the music of Richard Wagner.

But as any good comedy writer could have told the elder Strauss, the one way to ensure Richard’s fascination with Wagner was to prohibit him from listening to his music.

When Richard surreptitiously visited the Wagner Festspielhaus at Bayreuth and attended a performance of the revolutionary opera Tristan und Isolde, the experience overwhelmed him.

Did the teenage Richard Strauss’ encounter with Wagner’s music set him on a path toward vocal rather than symphonic composition?

It’s difficult to say, though his early works gave no indication that he would eventually focus on opera and song.

Earmarked from an early age as ”promising”—the curse of many a young musician—he began his career as a pianist and composer of orchestral music that demonstrated his supreme mastery of orchestral color and post-Wagnerian harmonics. In his 20s, he established himself as a dazzling musical technician with superb keyboard technique.

His mastery of complex, inventive harmonies gave hope to listeners in the post-Brahmsian, post-Wagnerian world that there were still musical frontiers to explore without abandoning tonality altogether, as the Second Viennese School was doing under the leadership of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.

Strauss established his early reputation as a composer with lushly entertaining, vaguely programmatic tone poems. It’s possible to surmise the plot points that underlie various musical passages in each, and to hear the innate theatricality that would lead Strauss to write more than two dozen operas.


Max Tilke: Poster of the opera Salome by Richard Strauss, 1910


Even Strauss’ advocates were unprepared for the musical scandal that catapulted him to international fame when he was 42: his opera Salome, based on a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play. As if the play’s lurid treatment of sexual obsession and necrophilia (not to mention a hint of incest) wasn’t enough, the music was heard to be even more shocking: cacophonous and atonal. (Actually, it’s far from either.)

Salome made Strauss notorious, rich, and internationally famous; he followed it in 1909 with his brilliant and even more shocking opera Elektra, a collaboration with the great German writer Hugo von Hoffmansthal that probes the psychology of Sophocles’ heroine in a daringly modern way.

The shadow of Freud is present in both works, and it put Strauss in the thick of the intellectual ferment pervading Vienna at the turn of the century.

To many listeners, Strauss had gone from traditional composer to modernist rebel.

But for his own artistic reasons—and not by way of public ”apology”— he had long been nurturing the idea of writing a lighter work in the manner of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The result, Strauss’ 1911 masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier, was like an irresistible valentine to the public that felt Strauss had abandoned them.

All was forgiven, andStrauss was confirmed in his career as the greatest exponent of 20th- century vocal music in the German language.

Flash forward some four decades and we get to Strauss’ valedictory works, Capriccio—his last opera—and the Four Last Songs, his magnificent final meditation on life and art.

Imagine: Strauss, who was born while the American Civil War was still under way, composed this music after the horrors of World War II. The political and moral realities of post-Nazi Germany could not be more relevant to it.

Though he remained in Germany during the War and was criticized by some for accommodating the Reich, Strauss had a Jewish daughter-in-law and acted to protect her as well as Jewish musical colleagues.

Image by Ferdinand Schmutzer, 1922

"Great Composer"

His dignified posture as the ”great composer” may well have been a pose. After composing more than two dozen operas drenched in German culture, he set the 1944 Capriccio in Paris and gave it a French sensibility; he set three of the Four Last Songs to texts by the Nobel prizewinning writer Hermann Hesse, whom the Nazis reviled.

”The most terrible period of human history is at an end,” he wrote at the end of the War, ”the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance, and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.”

His carefully constructed lifetime as a German composer of greatness was a grotesque ruin.

These four songs, with their musical evocation of autumnal imagery, serenity, and fond resignation, were surely his final consolation.

Renée Fleming: Interview

---Interview and excerpts from Renée Fleming's Strauss album Four Last Songs.


The Overtures

Ruslan confronts the head, by Nikolai Ge

The Overtures

Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Overtures are often called ”curtain raisers” even when there’s no curtain to be raised; they warm up the orchestra as well as the audience, providing spectacular enjoyment while making us impatient for what comes next. And the overture to Mikhail Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla is one of the most exciting in the repertory.

Often credited as the father of Russian opera, Glinka—one of the ”Mighty Five”— composed two superb operas, and though Russlan is considered the better of the two, it is best remembered for its fabulous overture, which starts at a breakneck pace and intensifies from there. The rapid string passages are flung like a scarf that goes flying in the wind.

According to anecdote, the opera’s complex plot was framed in 15 minutes by poet Konstantin Bakhturin, who was drunk at the time.

Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 -1791)

The Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio is one of the most exuberant Mozart ever composed, with an energy that communicates a sense of the opera's comical plots and characters.

Composed in 1782, the opera reflects a craze for faux-Middle Eastern exoticism known as Turquerie, though the style was not particularly Turkish; refashioned for European tastes, it was comprised mainly of an invented, generic exoticism and martial-sounding march tempos.

Thumping rhythms, cymbals, tinkling percussion and vaguely foreign harmonies were all part of the mix. (The cymbals, at least, were an authentic touch; they were widely used in Arab music for centuries before their adoption in Europe.)

Overture to Candide, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

With an abundance of glorious music, hilariously satirical scenes and a book and lyrics by some of the greatest literary talents of its day (including the playwright Lillian Hellmann and the poet Richard Wilbur), why don’t we get to hear Bernstein’s 1956 Candide more often?

That question is not easy to answer; but then, the work itself is not easy to perform. Variously called a musical, an operetta and an opera, it is prodigiously demanding—perhaps most famously in ”Glitter and Be Gay,” a parody of a coloratura aria that is full of extravagant vocal pyrotechnics capped off by a high E-flat. That’s the theme that brings the overture to its stirring yet witty close.

Glitter and be Gay

---Kristin Chenoweth - Glitter and Be Gay


The Italian Songs

"Aprile" Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846 -1916)

"O Del Mio Amato Ben", Stefano Donaudy (1879 -1925)

Mattinata, Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-191 9)

After this concert, the highbrow cocktail-party bluffers among us can rightly boast that we heard three glorious examples of the canzone tradition.

In contrast with the prevailing European art song tradition, which depends on an intense, subtle communion connecting the composer, singer, poet and listener, the Italian canzone genre is far more direct.

These songs touch our hearts with their sincere emotions and pure melodies.

Paolo Tosti was perhaps the most famously prolific of all canzone composers, while Palermo native Stefano Donaudy is best remembered for his collection of 36 Arie de Stile Antico—”old-fashioned airs”—of which ”O Del Mio Amato Ben” is an example.

Mattinata is a ”morning song” by the composer of the one-act operatic masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana.

Songs from The King and I:

Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence, 1950

Songs from The King and I:

"I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Something Wonderful" and "Shall We Dance?" Richard Rodgers (1902-1979)

We know these songs so well, it’s easy to take them for granted. But with his lyricist and partner Oscar Hammerstein, the composer Richard Rodgers brought a revolution to Broadway with Oklahoma!, their 1943 hit, and then kept going, transforming the Great American Songbook by finding a new musical language to imbue their songs with drama.

The King and I was their fifth collaboration, and was drawn from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s.

In songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein—as in those by their artistic legatee, Stephen Sondheim—we are treated not just to beautiful melodies and witty lyrics, but to penetrating emotion that conveys authentic theatricality.

To learn more about tonight's Guest Artist Renée Fleming, please click here.

To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, please click here.