You don’t often get to hear music by Gustav Mahler’s contemporary and countryman Alexander Zemlinsky. But you can at this month’s Omaha Symphony Joslyn performance of his 1934 Sinfonietta, his last purely orchestral composition. It was preceded by seven operas, many songs, a ballet and other works. “I have always thought, and still believe, that he was a great composer,” wrote Arnold Schoenberg seven years after Zemlinsky died at age 71, exiled and penniless in New York.
Zemlinsky had more in common stylistically with Mahler than Schoenberg, although,in this instance, he seemed more modern than he had been before. Nervous energy merges into “yearning and melodic inflections,” according to program annotator Paul Schiavo, noting further a tragic tone, “sardonic irony and earnest lyricism.” Certainly, given that Zemlinsky’s music was proscribed by the Nazis during their evil time, that could have colored his feelings. This performance features an arrangement by Austrian composer and conductor Roland Freisitzer, born more than a hundred years after Zemlinsky.
Following Germany’s loss of the Second World War, Richard Strauss, a near contemporary of Zemlinsky, found his own strengths again, coming up with the hauntingly beautiful Four Last Songs. And, at age 82, also created the Duet-concertino, a sort of double concerto featuring clarinet and bassoon. Strauss had a programmatic scenario: a princess encounters a bear who tries to mimic her dancing. After being startled by the creature, she dances with him; then he turns into a prince. They achieve “a friendly companionship,” Schiavo says, allowing a “sunny duet” in the final moments. The Omaha Symphony’s Carmelo Galante and James Compton are the clarinet and bassoon soloists.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 came about when he was much younger than were Strauss and Zemlinsky at the time they wrote their scores. Strongly influenced by Haydn’s mature examples, Beethoven nonetheless was on his way to his own style. Schiavo suggests that this composition links up with other Beethoven symphonies, being graceful “in the spirit of serenades.” Schiavo also notes that the third movement minuet is more like a “boisterous scherzo.” Overall, the originality of this initial exploration of a symphony certainly points the way to greatness yet to come.
Thomas Wilkins conducts the Orchestra.
“Youth and Maturity” is the title for this concert. But, no matter the age when the works were created, everything remains alive and well.
This Symphony Joslyn concert is May 22 at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Hall, 2200 Dodge St. Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets: $33. www.omahasymphony.org