Curtis Symphony Orchestra with Juanjo Mena, conductor

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra shines under the “world-class conducting” (Washington Post) of Juanjo Mena, chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, in a feast of Romantic storytelling. By turns whimsical and noble, Strauss’s take on the Cervantes novel Don Quixote gives way to the heady narrative of the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz. A whirlwind tone poem by John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, sets it all in motion.

Repertoire

“Whenever serious art loses track of its roots in the vernacular,” John Adams once wrote, “then it begins to atrophy.”

Adams has explored the widest range of music, though he is known to the public chiefly through a series of brilliant and frequently controversial stage works, from the early Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer to Doctor Atomic (produced by the Curtis Opera Theatre last season) and the recent Gospel According to the Other Mary. Orchestra audiences know him through several thorny concertos and showy, often fun-spirited symphonic works, including the Chairman Dances (drawn from Nixon in China) and the work heard today.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine was written on commission from the Pittsburgh Symphony for the opening of Great Woods in Mansfield, Mass., and first performed on in June 1986 with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the Pittsburgh ensemble. It is an exhilarating five-minute fanfare in which orchestral colors shimmer and intermingle in a fabric of austere motifs and potent musical ideas.

Cervantes’s 17th-century epic Don Quixote de la Mancha, with its tragicomic hero, seemed tailor-made for Richard Strauss during his early maturity. The composer’s series of “tone poems” (Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, and Also sprach Zarathustra) had received general praise from the public, though critics—and especially the overly influential Eduard Hanslick—had been harsh in condemning their restless, quasi-Wagnerian orchestral style. Perhaps feeling himself to be a bit of a beleaguered hero of modern music, in the late 1890s Strauss composed two works that examined the very nature of heroism, not without a dose of irony. Ein Heldenleben depicted the composer and his wife rallying against a sea of critics; and Don Quixote shows the ultimate “quixotic” hero (who may indeed be mad), devoted to his struggle even while aware of its hopelessness.

Don Quixote remains one of Strauss’s most satisfying works, a sort of “mini-concerto” for cello and viola (with a lesser role for violin) that includes ample soloistic playing from various members of the large orchestra. With the subtitle “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character,” its theme-and-variations approach reflects the discursive, episodic storytelling of Cervantes’s original: “a variations form carried out ad absurdum, and ramblingly tragicomic,” as Strauss wrote. It was completed in December 1897 and performed in Cologne in March 1898, with the conductor Franz Wüllner on the podium.

In 1827 Hector Berlioz developed a crush on the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he saw in English-language Parisian productions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.Though he hardly understood a word of English, by the third act of Romeo Berlioz claims to have fallen in love with “Juliet.” The two eventually married, but after two decades of passion and turbulence they decided they’d been a poor match at the outset. The Symphonie fantastique became a recounting of Berlioz’ life with Harriet, its subtitle (“Episodes in the Life of an Artist”) making its biographical reference clear.

It was the first prominent programmatic symphony of the Romantic period; no previous piece had worked out a storyline in such relentless detail. “The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment,” Berlioz wrote, in a note distributed at the premiere in December 1830. “As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance.”

Thus at its heart, the Symphonie is a dramatic work, an orchestral expression by a composer who had yet to score any genuine successes at the Paris Opéra, and who found here an outlet for his dramatic gifts. At its musical core is what Berlioz had called the idée fixe, the chief melodic motif that represents Harriet.

 

Biographies

Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena is chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, England.  In Europe he has appeared with the Berlin, Dresden, Oslo, and Royal Stockholm philharmonics; the Göteborg and Danish National symphony orchestras; Munich Radio Orchestra; Orchestre National de France; Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse; Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala Milan; and all the major Spanish orchestras. Since his American debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2004, he has conducted most of the leading orchestras in the United States, including the Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Houston, and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras; New York and Los Angeles philharmonics; and the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras.  

Mr. Mena has led the BBC Philharmonic on tours of Europe and Asia, including performances in Cologne, Munich, Vienna, Madrid, Beijing and Seoul, and performs with them every year at the BBC Proms in London. He has made several recordings with the BBC Philharmonic, including a disc of works by Manuel de Falla, named Recording of the Month by BBC Music Magazine, and a Gabriel Pierné release which was a Gramophone Editor’s Choice. He has also recorded a collection of Basque symphonic music with the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra and a critically acclaimed rendering of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony for Hyperion with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

Mr. Mena was previously artistic director of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, chief guest conductor of the Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, and principal guest conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

Carlos Ágreda, from Bogotá, Colombia, entered the Curtis Institute of Music in 2016. As a conducting fellow, he works closely with Curtis mentor conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. All students at Curtis receive merit-based, full-tuition scholarships, and Mr. Ágreda is the Rita E. Hauser Conducting Fellow.

Mr. Ágreda has worked with orchestras around the world, including the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where he served as assistant conductor under Juanjo Mena, Vasily Petrenko, and Jac Van Steen. He has also conducted the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, the Manchester Camerata, the Colombia National Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Northern College of Music Concert Orchestra; and, as artistic director, the Orchestral Corporation of Colombia. 

In 2017 Mr. Ágreda was a conducting fellow at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. In 2016 he conducted at the New Music North West Festival and led the conducting workshop at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, both in the U.K. In previous years, he won a competition for young Colombian conductors, allowing him to conduct the Colombia National Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Ágreda has worked with such esteemed conductors as Mark Elder, Stéphane Denève, Mark Stringer, and Benjamin Zander. Prior to entering Curtis, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Corpas University in Colombia and a master’s degree from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (U.K.).

Oliver Herbert, from San Francisco, entered the Curtis Institute of Music in 2015 and studies cello with Carter Brey and Peter Wiley. All students at Curtis receive merit-based, full-tuition scholarships, and Mr. Herbert is the Edwin B. Garrigues Annual Fellow.

Mr. Herbert’s recent solo and recital engagements include debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Santa Cruz Symphony, the Las Vegas Philharmonic, and the Dame Myra Hess Recital Series in Chicago. As a chamber musician, he has participated in the Verbier Festival Academy, the Krzyzowa Music Festival, the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute, ChamberFest Cleveland, Music in the Vineyards, and the Caramoor Festival. In addition to being a fellow at the Steans Music Institute, he was also invited to perform on a tour with renowned violinist Miriam Fried, the program’s director. He currently serves as the associate principal cellist of Symphony In C.

Mr. Herbert’s most recent competition awards include first prize and Pablo Casals prize in the 2015 Irving M. Klein International String Competition, and second prize in the 2015 Stulberg International String Competition. He has earned the top prize in numerous competitions, including the Spotlight, National YoungArts, Colburn Academy Concerto, Nova Vista Symphony Concerto, and Felix Khuner Young Artist competitions.

Mr. Herbert plays on a 1769 Guadagnini cello that belonged to famous Italian cellist Antonio Janigro, on generous loan from the Janigro family.

Hae Sue Lee, from Seoul, entered the Curtis Institute of Music in 2013 and studies viola with Roberto Díaz and Hsin-Yun Huang. All students at Curtis receive merit-based, full-tuition scholarships, and Ms. Lee is the Marcy Gringlas and Joel Greenberg Annual Fellow. 

Ms. Lee has performed as a soloist with Ensemble 212 in New York and the Emirate Youth Symphony Orchestra. She has given solo recitals as part of the Kumho Prodigy series and as a Rising Star of the Korean Culture Center in Paris. Ms. Lee has participated in the KNIGA Symphony Orchestra, Emirate Youth Symphony Orchestra, Summit Music Festival Youth Orchestra, Great Mountains Music Festival and School, and the Summit Music Festival. 

Ms. Lee has received many awards, including first place at the Johansen International Competition, first prize in the 2011 Alexander and Buono String Competition in New York, and the bronze medal in the 2015 Stulberg International String Competition. She was also named the 2011 Kumho Prodigy.