In the penultimate orchestra concert of the season, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will perform two philosophical pieces.
At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, August 17 in the Amphitheater, the CSO and soprano Michelle Johnson will perform German composer Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” a series of pieces that Strauss wrote in the last year of his life. The concert will end with Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), a tone poem based on the novel of the same name by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
“Four Last Songs,” titled and published after Strauss’ death, is made up of “Frühling” (Spring), “September,” “Beim Schlafengehen” (When Falling Asleep) and “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset). Each song uses the text of a different German poem.
This is CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov’s last concert of the season — his fifth with the CSO. He said “Four Last Songs” is a unique experience.
“It changes you, when you hear ‘Four Last Songs,’ ” Milanov said. “Particularly the last song, which deals with saying farewell. It asks, ‘How do we wrap up everything that we have? How do we summarize our life? How do we define the important things that we have done?’ ”
Each song features a soaring soprano voice and dense orchestration. Milanov said Johnson, who first performed with the CSO last season, suggested the piece.
“We had a conversation, (and) I asked her, ‘What is your dream to sing?’ ” Milanov said. “And she said, ‘My dream is to perform Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs.’ I said, ‘We’ll do it.’ ”
Milanov, who has worked with Johnson on several other projects, said he is looking forward to this collaborative concert.
“She has an amazing voice, a generous heart and is one of the most amazing singers I’ve worked with,” Milanov said. “I’m so much looking forward to doing this concert.”
Johnson will be performing “Four Last Songs” for the first time in her career. She said she is excited for both the piece and the concert as a whole.
“This is my first time singing these four last songs from Strauss, and for me it’s a bucket list kind of deal — to be able to have such a fantastic orchestra to collaborate with is insane, and I love working with Maestro Milanov,” Johnson said.
To Johnson, “Four Last Songs” takes its source material — poetry about death — to a peaceful place.
“The poetry is about death, but Strauss pictures and paints it in such a beautiful way that it makes you not fear death, but accept it for the beauty of what your life was,” Johnson said. “It makes you accept that all things come to an end.”
Johnson said she appreciates “Four Last Songs” not just for its lyrics, but Strauss’ balancing of voice and orchestra.
“It’s just so gloriously written that the voice just soars through the density of the orchestra,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to sing it. I’m on pins and needles just waiting.”
The concert will end with “Also sprach Zarathustra,” inspired by Nietsche’s book, which explores the concept of eternal recurrence — that the universe repeats itself across time and space and will continue to do so forever.
Strauss’ piece follows the title character, Zarathustra, through selected chapters and plot points. The piece is known for its complexity and was used in the score of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
To Milanov, the piece is an excellent final note for his fifth season.
“The piece is a sonic celebration of symphonic writing,” Milanov said. “It’s powerful, it’s sublime and it’s very inspiring to listen to. For my last concert (of the season), it was a fitting choice for the orchestra to do something so complex, so important and so impressive.”