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The French conductor Louis Langrée has been Music Director of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra since 2013.

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Katia and Marielle Labèque


Katia and Marielle Labèque are sibling pianists renowned for their ensemble of synchronicity and energy.

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The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is one of America’s finest and most versatile ensembles.


Originally broadcast on Jan 19, 2020 on 90.9 WGUC in Cincinnati, OH

Program Notes

At the Summit: Strauss + Dessner

FRI SEPT, 20 am | SAT SEPT 21, 8 pm


R. STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Don Juan, Op. 20


Concerto for Two Pianos

U.S. Premiere


Ein Alpensinfonie (“An Alpine Symphony”), Op. 64

  • Sunrise
  • The Ascent
  • Entering the Forest
  • Wandering near the Stream
  • At the Waterfall
  • Apparition
  • On Blooming Meadows
  • On the Alpine Pasture
  • Going Astray in Thicket and Underbrush
  • On the Glacier
  • Dangerous Moments
  • At the Summit
  • View
  • Fog Arises
  • The Sun Gradually Darkens
  • Elegy
  • Calm Before the Storm
  • Thunder and Storm
  • Sunset
  • Vanishing Sound
  • Night


from Music Director Louis Langrée

Welcome to the opening of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 125th anniversary season! A primordial aspect of the Orchestra’s remarkable history is its dedication to the music of its time. Since its very beginning, the CSO has commissioned and played numerous world premieres and has performed many U.S. premieres, including pieces by Mahler, Debussy, Scriabin, Bartók, Ravel and Richard Strauss. In 1904, Strauss himself visited Cincinnati to conduct his very first orchestral masterpiece, Don Juan, and Strauss’s last tone poem, An Alpine Symphony, received its U.S. premiere with the CSO in 1916. More than 100 years later, Don Juan was one of the first pieces played during our acoustical tests in the newly renovated Music Hall. As we continue to develop and enrich the history of our Orchestra, we present on this special occasion another U.S. premiere, the Concerto for Two Pianos by Cincinnati native Bryce Dessner, which is dedicated to the formidable Katia and Marielle Labèque, whom we are thrilled to welcome back.


Don Juan, Op. 20

  • Work composed: 1888
  • Premiere: November 11, 1889, Weimar; Richard Strauss conducting the Weimar Opera Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, triangle, harp, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 34 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: April 1904, Richard Strauss conducting | Most recent: February 2008, Susanna Mälkki conducting | The CSO also performed this work in Istanbul, Hong Kong and Croatia (Max Rudolf conducting) and in Manila and Okinawa (Erich Kunzel conducting) on its 10-week world tour in 1966—the CSO was the first American orchestra to make a world tour sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
  • Duration: approx. 18 minutes

A New Genre
Nothing could have been more “modern” in the music of the 1880s and ‘90s than the tone poem, that bold attempt to create drama without words and to test music’s expressive powers to the fullest. Pioneered by Franz Liszt from the 1850s on, the new genre found a practitioner of genius in the young Richard Strauss. In a series of orchestral works that established him as one of the leading avant-gardists of his day, Strauss boldly tackled the most complex literary and philosophical topics. Don Juan is one of his earliest tone poems, written when Strauss was only 24.


A World-Weary Don
Many Romantic writers had grappled with the character of Don Juan Tenorio, the legendary skirt-chaser first immortalized by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina in the 17th century, then by Molière and, of course, Mozart and Da Ponte. The Don Juan legend has been called “the greatest erotic subject of all time,” but it is more than that. Don Juan is not your typical sex addict; by conquering women, he becomes, in a way, the master of the universe (or so he feels, which almost amounts to the same thing). And most importantly, he doesn’t hesitate to give up his life rather than making any concessions in his life philosophy, however depraved that philosophy may be.

In the decadent Romantic version by Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850), left incomplete at the time of the poet’s death, Don Juan doesn’t need a stone guest to send him to Hell [in other tellings of the Don Juan legend, the statue from the tomb of the Commander, whom Don Juan killed in a duel, comes to life and ushers Don Juan to Hell]. He willingly lets the brother of one of his lovers defeat him in a duel, for victory “is as boring as the whole of life.” Strauss placed three lengthy excerpts from the poem at the front of his score. These excerpts reveal nothing of the plot, but they summarize the life philosophy Lenau had given his hero:

Fain would I run the magic circle, immeasurably wide, of beautiful women’s manifold charms, in full tempest of enjoyment, to die of a kiss at the mouth of the last one. O my friend, would that I could fly through every place where beauty blossoms, fall on my knees before each one, and, were it but for a moment, conquer…

I shun anxiety and the exhaustion of pleasure; I keep myself fresh in the service of beauty; and in offending the individual I rave for my devotion to her kind. The breath of a woman that is as the odor of spring today, may perhaps tomorrow oppress me like the air of a dungeon. When, in my changes, I travel with my love in the wide circle of beautiful women, my love is a different thing for each one; I build no temple out of ruins. Indeed, passion is always and only the new passion; it cannot be carried from this one to that; it must die here and spring anew there; and when it knows itself, then it knows nothing of repentance. As each beauty stands alone in the world, so stands the love which it prefers. Forth and away, then, to triumphs ever new, so long as youth’s fiery pulses race!

It was a beautiful storm that urged me on; it has spent its rage, and silence now remains.

A trance is upon every wish, every hope. Perhaps a thunderbolt from the heights which I despised, struck fatally at my power of love, and suddenly my world became a desert and darkened. And perhaps not; the fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark.*

The quest for ideal love, which pushes Don Juan from one woman to the next, is really a quest for the meaning of life. In Lenau’s treatment, the Don comes very close to being a cousin of Dr. Faust (about whom he also wrote a drama). The force that moves Don Juan is, of course, not learning but passion; yet the two heroes are similar in their eternal desire for totality and in the fact that both are ultimately denied fulfillment on earth.

What to Listen for:
Don Juan’s passion is evident from the first bars of Strauss’s score, which is one of the great symphonic openings of all time, followed by a sensual violin solo representing the “Eternal Feminine” (not coincidentally, the phrase in quotation marks comes from Goethe’s Faust). In one episode, we can almost hear the Don seducing a timid young girl before our very ears. After an exuberant “carnival scene,” Don Juan falls into a deep depression, and as he surrenders to his opponent, the work ends on a bleak note, in the minor mode and pianissimo.

—Peter Laki


Concerto for Two Pianos

U.S. Premiere

  • Work composed: 2017, co-commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Borusan Culture Arts Centre, Dresden Philharmonie, Orquesta Nacionales de Espanã and Orchestre de Paris for Katia and Marielle Labèque
  • Premiere: April 13, 2018, London’s Royal Festival Hall, John Storgårds conducting the London Philharmonic; Katia and Marielle Labèque, pianists
  • Instrumentation: duo pianos, 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, brake drum, crotale, egg shaker, glockenspiel, marimba, table of muted metals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambour de Basque, tom-tom, triangle, vibraphone, 2 wood pieces, xylophone, harp, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the work’s U.S. premiere
  • Duration: approx. 20 minutes

Bryce Dessner is a vital and rare force in new music. He won Grammy Awards as a classical composer and as a rock musician with his alternative band The National. Dessner also has an increasingly high-profile presence in the world of film score composition. Many of his works have been commissioned by the world’s leading ensembles, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which premiered Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos in 2018. This work, written for Katia and Marielle Labèque, receives its U.S. premiere with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra this weekend. Born in Cincinnati, Dessner earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Yale University and now lives in Paris.

In the Composer’s Words

I first met Katia and Marielle Labèque during rehearsals for a concert we shared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel several years ago. The orchestra was premiering a recent work of mine, paired with Katia and Marielle performing Philip Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos. During that week in Los Angeles I became acquainted with their incredible playing and profoundly open and inspiring musical universe. I had also recently moved to Paris, and Katia and Marielle would quickly become a second family to me in France. Soon after that we started planning our future collaboration, which materialised with my Concerto for Two Pianos.

The piece was composed for Katia, Marielle and the London Philharmonic Orchestra throughout 2017, with a large portion of the development taking place in Katia and Marielle’s piano studio on Rue Quincampoix in Paris and their house on the Basque coast, where they spend most of the summer. I spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with the repertoire they have performed over the years, and doing research on the deeply personal and intertwined musical history and style that they share. I also shared the score with them several times as it developed, to get their feedback and to be sure the ideas were translating well to the piano. I had previously composed a 20-minute piano duo for them in 2015 called El Chan, which they have toured extensively and recorded. Working on this first duo piece together was a great learning experience for me, in shaping how to address the challenges of writing for two pianos. 

My Concerto is a tribute to two great musicians who I am honored to work with and who I am even luckier to call my friends.
Bryce Dessner, April 2018 

Eine Alpensinfonie (“An Alpine Symphony”), Op. 64

  • Work composed: 1911–1916
  • Premiere: October 28, 1915, Berlin, Strauss conducting the Dresden Royal Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: 4 flutes (incl. 2 piccolos), 3 oboes (incl. English horn), heckelphone, 3 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 8 horns (incl. 4 Wagner tuben), 4 trumpets, 5 trombones (1 off-stage), 2 tubas, 2 timpani, thunder sheet, snare drum, crash cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, wind machine, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, herdbells/herdenglocken, 2 harps, organ, celeste, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 4 previous subscription weekends, plus “special” performances in 1928 and 1916 | Premiere: April 1916 (“special” concert), Ernst Kunwald conducting (U.S. Premiere) | Most recent: April 2013, Roberto Abbado conducting
  • Duration: approx. 51 minutes
  • Ravel’s spirit had been shattered by World War I. It was only with great difficulty that he returned to writing music. Painstakingly he completed his one compositional effort of the war years, Le Tombeau de Couperin, which had occupied him from 1914 to 1917. Then for two years he composed nothing substantial. He subsequently came out of his depression only long enough to write a cynical picture of pre-war Europe—La Valse (1919–20). After that it took him two full years to compose the wonderful Sonata for Violin and Cello, which is only 16 pages long.

    Ravel was depressed not only because of memories of war horrors but also because his mother, to whom he had been deeply devoted, had died in 1916. The composer never fully accepted her death. Furthermore, Parisian society, which Ravel enjoyed immensely but which had been devastated by the war, returned to its former vitality only after a difficult period of adjustment. Ravel was still at the center of musical activities. He was vice president and then president of the Independent Musical Society, which presented concerts of contemporary music of all countries. But things had changed. He found that he no longer represented the avant garde, as he had before the war. He saw his position as a leader in new music taken over by a new generation—Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, and others. “The new sounds in the air,” explains Ravel’s biographer Arbie Orenstein, “were those of jazz, polytonality, and atonality, as the lush velvet of impressionism gave way to the hard steel which had been prophesied in The Rite of Spring.”

    Ravel was an active member of a group of artists and intellectuals that spent countless hours in Parisian cafés, exchanging lively opinions. The composer had a lot to think about: the cultural ramifications of the war, the new music he heard in the concerts his Society put on, the aesthetic implications of the new avant garde style, and the heady ideas picked up in cafés.
    With great effort he managed to complete the Sonata for Violin and Cello, which had been “dragging on,” as he put it, for a year and a half. After that, he settled into a long period of creative inactivity. He was supposed to be working on an opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges, but instead he composed nothing other than a few small pieces and orchestrations of other composers’ works (including Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition).

    One evening in July 1922, Ravel attended a private concert where he heard the superb Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi perform his Violin and Cello Sonata. Later that evening Ravel asked d’Aranyi to play some authentic gypsy melodies. She obliged, and he kept asking to hear more. The “evening” continued until 5 a.m. Ravel, like such composers as Liszt, Brahms, and Dvořák before him, was fascinated by both gypsy folk music and the gypsy manner of violin playing. (Coincidentally, it was for d’Aranyi that Bartók was at this time writing his two folk inspired violin sonatas.) The idea for Tzigane was born that night. A few days later Ravel sent a telegram to another violinist, Hélène Jourdan Morhange, who had advised him while he was composing the sonata and who had recently premiered that work: “Come quickly and bring the Paganini Études with you.” He wanted to learn as much as he could about violin virtuosity.

    Ravel’s mental block against composing did not disappear. It was two years before he actually completed his modest gypsy work for violin and piano, and then only two days before its first performance. Thus D’Aranyi had to learn the fiendishly difficult solo part in an amazingly short time, yet she succeeded in dazzling critics and listeners alike at the London premiere. A few months later Ravel orchestrated the work, and d’Aranyi again impressed the audience when she premiered the new version.

    Ravel made a third version of Tzigane, for violin and an instrument called a luthéal. This now forgotten instrument was attached to a piano to make it sound like a cimbalom, a Hungarian folk instrument similar to a hammered dulcimer. The luthéal soon lost what small appeal it had had, and this version of Tzigane is no longer played.

    Although Ravel never fully recovered from his compositional lethargy, he was finally, after the composition of Tzigane, able to undertake and complete a number of major works.

    KEYNOTE. The title Tzigane means “gypsy.” It refers both to the work’s typically Hungarian rhythms and melodic figures and to its stylization of gypsy violin playing. The extraordinary demands on the soloist far exceed what a folk violinist could manage. Still, the flavor of folk music is always present. Ravel subtitled the piece Rapsodie en Concert, and he described it as “a virtuoso piece in the style of a Hungarian rhapsody.”

    The piece owes its style equally to its two inspirations: folk music and the spectacular violin writing of Paganini. For example, the opening unaccompanied cadenza, which occupies more than a third of the piece, explores the typically Hungarian harmonic minor scale while it exposes the violinist to ever greater technical demands. The melodic line moves gradually upward, although Ravel directs the soloist to remain on the lowest string (the G string) for a considerable time. Thus the sound gets more and more intense as the melodic line rises. When the other strings are finally used, it is for spectacular multiple stopping (playing several notes at once). After the orchestra enters, the work becomes an incredibly virtuosic concerto, in which all manner of violin tricks—perpetual motion, rapid harmonics, left hand pizzicati in the midst of bowed arpeggios, quadruple stops, extremely high writing—are accompanied by Ravel’s typically imaginative orchestration.

    —Peter Laki