Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. In a press release issued just yesterday, it was announced that Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, after 10 years on the job, has resigned from his position as Spoleto USA’s Director for Opera and Orchestra, effective at the current festival’s end. You’ll get the full story later, but, in a nutshell, he feels he is no longer able to devote the time and effort to Spoleto that the festival deserves, as he is now music director for two major-metro orchestras in Europe, and he is in ever-increasing demand as a guest conductor with the best orchestras and opera houses worldwide.
Sad news, indeed, as Villaume has presided over quite a few of the festival’s most successful-ever opera and orchestral productions during his tenure here, and has brought the Spoleto Festival Orchestra up to unprecedented levels of collective talent and accomplishment. The good news? Well, he’s not quite done with us yet, with one more big concert to go this festival — and he’s entirely open to coming back from time to time as a guest conductor at future Spoletos. So, it’s entirely likely that we haven’t seen (or heard) the last of him yet.
Now, down to the music. German composer Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (thus spake Zarathustra) can claim perhaps the most magnificent (and loudest!) opening passages in all of Western music, and certainly the most glorious musical evocation of a sunrise that we have. A rumbling, near-seismic organ pedal note leads into a blazing fanfare of indescribable glory that gained pop-culture status soon after since Stanley Kubrick chose it to add oomph to the opening scene of his classic film 2001, A Space Odyssey. And sure enough, Villaume and his “orchestra of virtuosos” shivered our collective timbers, with decibels to burn, as they launched into the piece, just about blowing the roof off of Gaillard Auditorium.
But that’s hardly all there is to this massive, nine-section tone poem, inspired by the philosophical novel of the same title by Friedrich Nietzsche. I won’t get into the complex metaphysics and alternative moralities that Strauss sought (and mostly failed) to distill into the piece. But his heroic attempt still resulted in heroic music, with about as much sheer sonic grandeur as ears can take at one sitting. There’s lots of contrast: dark, brooding passages alternate with sunny episodes, moments of quiet reflection and stretches of wild, shrieking violence. Some of the loveliest and more pastoral sections are graced by a solo violin, played here to sweet-toned perfection by Concertmaster Jennifer Cho.
The Maestro was in particularly physical form for this one, as animated and engaged as I’ve ever seen him in performance. Body language, for many conductors, is a key technique for conveying their musical and emotional designs to their players. But however Villaume did it, he certainly got the results he wanted. The orchestra smoldered and seethed, sighed and cried, dashed and danced, bellowed and shrieked – and screamed triumph to the skies. They had it all: burnished tone, astounding precision, sectional integrity and lots of volume. On top of that, their playing crackled with the singular sort of youthful fire and enthusiasm that only fledgling masters-in-training can pull off. It was a musical miracle, one of quite a few that Villaume has engineered for us during his decade of duty and devotion to Spoleto.
After intermission, the orchestra returned to deliver three shorter works, beginning with the overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz: one of his several operas that pioneered the fresh phenomenon of German nationalism in music, setting the stage for the creations of Richard Wagner and others. Its noble themes, dramatic devices and rich orchestration made it much more than just an overture, leading to its current status as a concert hall favorite. Our players gave it a plush and rousing reading.
Next came the overture to the operetta Die Fledermaus, by Vienna’s waltz-king, Johann Strauss II. Its bubbly melodies, frothy waltz and lively polka brought a measure of relief (as if we needed it) from Weber’s more serious strains, and set us up for the very different sort of waltz that followed. Villaume and company brought it to life with vigor, lush sound, humor and blithe spirit.
Finally, we heard La Valse, Maurice Ravel’s ominous musical maelstrom disguised as a waltz. Originally conceived as a French take on the Viennese waltz, Ravel composed it at a turning point in European history, just as the comfortable trappings of old-world society were about to tumble into the dark abyss of World War I; truly the end of an era. Thus the music exudes a sense of forced gaiety; a frantic effort to celebrate the “good life” as hard and as long as possible before it slips away. Perhaps Ravel’s own characterization of the music as “dancing on the edge of a volcano” described it best. Our exalted artists squeezed every last drop of swirling, seething angst out of the piece.
I thought the final screaming, foot-stomping standing ovation would never end. To shut us up, Villaume and his marvelous minions treated us to a final orchestral bonbon as an encore: Josef Strauss’s stirring Radetsky March, the number that traditionally ends the Vienna Philharmonic’s world-famous New Year concerts. Villaume and his orchestra had a ball with it, and so did the audience, as the maestro turned and “conducted” the deliriously happy crowd in rhythmic clapping, just like they do it in Vienna. Great fun.
How appropriate that our French Maestro saved Ravel’s edgy, but glorious (and bloody difficult) masterpiece (Zarathustra, too) until his final full festival with us. The Spoleto orchestras of yesteryear could hardly have coped with their extravagant demands. But, after spending 10 arduous years rebuilding his forces, these amazing players were finally ready to deliver such material to its full potential. Think of this music as Emmanuel’s farewell gift to us. And count his fabulous orchestra as his main legacy to the festival he has served so admirably.
Don’t miss the Maestro’s final concert with his orchestra next Sunday, same time and place. At just $10 for a nosebleed-section ticket, you have no excuse for passing up Emmanuel’s festival swan song.