Ein Heldenleben

The RPO is preparing for its performance of Strauss’ mighty Ein Heldenleben next Friday at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.  The orchestra has been performing the piece in Spain last week so are getting nicely warmed up for the London concert!

Click here for a preview, recorded on a hand-held device at last week’s rehearsal: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Ein Heldenleben in rehearsal

Click here for further information and to book tickets.

We’ll be posting all about Strauss and this monumental work throughout the week.  To get us started, Bass Trombone Roger Argente has written his own personal thoughts and experiences of the piece, one of the first he performed with the RPO.

I’m writing this post backstage at the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid, while the RPO, or the band as I call them, is on stage rehearsing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Julia Fischer.

The RPO are regular visitors to Spain, Madrid and the Auditorio Nacional in particular. On this occasion we’re doing two concerts here in Madrid and started with a concert in the newish (2007) Centro Cultural Miguel Delibes in Valladolid on Tuesday, about 100 miles north west of Madrid, playing repertoire including Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Valladolid was cold and windy; it even snowed overnight on the outskirts but we made the most of it, as we always do. The small family-run taverna opposite our hotel in the Plaza San Miguel did a roaring post-concert trade in hearty soups and raciones (bigger versions of tapas that you share).

The morning after our first Heldenleben concert we made our way to the new AVE train station in Valladolid. The AVE is Spain’s newest transport solution, using super-fast trains traveling at speeds of up 300 KPH and has cut down a previous 2.5 hour journey to just over one hour between Valladolid and Madrid.

Anyway, back to the music. The Dvořák ‘New World’ Symphony is a great piece of music; the tunes permeate the brain and are hard to get rid of, but we do play it regularly, whereas Heldenleben only comes around every few years.

A bit of background on this piece…

It is a tone poem written in 1898, when Strauss was 34 years old. It utilises the leitmotif as ‘invented’ by Richard Wagner: the use of small musical themes that help glue the whole work together. The music itself is extremely romantic and many scholars believe it to be partly autobiographical, while others go for the more tongue-in-cheek approach. We must also understand that it was written at a time when music in Europe was moving in lots of different directions, particularly those experimenting with modernism and impressionism.

The opening leitmotif is particularly well written and features the horn and cello sections; this opening rising motive really gets the hair on the back of you neck tingling – or at least it should do. Other favourite sections of this piece for me include the twittering critics, as portrayed by the woodwinds and the recurring ‘Dr Daring’ parallel 5ths of the tenor and bass tuba. Physically the Hero’s battlefield is a real blow for all the wind and brass.

The subtle drip feed of themes from other Strauss tone poems, particularly Till Eulenspiegel, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote and Death and Transfiguration are also very effective.

But at the end of the concert the glory belongs with the leader and the solo horn, played beautifully and sensitively by Duncan Riddell and Laurence Davies.

I first came across this piece while at school in South Wales when I started reading Norman del Mar’s critical commentary on Strauss. At that time I was very fortunate to have played good and varied symphonic repertoire both at school level (Dwr-y-felin Comprehensive School), county youth orchestra (West Glamorgan Youth Orchestra) and the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. The repertoire I performed then was challenging but not quite as challenging as Heledenleben. My first chance to play through the piece came about quite by accident when in my first term at the Royal Northern College of Music I stood in for an older student who was ill. I then played it several times with professional orchestras in the North West and in Bournemouth, but it wasn’t until just over 20 years ago that I played it in London. I first played it with the RPO as part of my trial period under our then musical director Vladimir Ashkenazy.

After tonight’s concert the RPO is flying back to London, I’m personally off to Frankfurt for a few days, then we’re off to Budapest on Monday to repeat the Dvořák ‘New World’ programme followed by an eagerly anticipated repeat performance of Heldenleben on Friday 30th March at the Royal Festival Hall.

We all know professional musicians can be quite cynical and downplay their emotions, but deep down I still remember the sometimes random concerts that help mark your professional career. I’m thinking of performances that mean something to you and your colleagues and I’m thinking of the following, many of which still seem like they were performed last week. In no particular order…

Verdi’s Requiem at the Proms with Daniele Gatti; Charles Dutoit, Yuja Wang and Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto in Berlin and Vienna, Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam with Daniele Gatti; Charles Dutoit, Martha Argerich and Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall, The Pines of Rome at La Scala, Milan and Petrushka in Cerittos, California with Yuri Temirkanov; Mahler’s Symphony No.5 in Austin, Texas and Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Barbican with Daniele Gatti and Stravisky’s Rite of Spring at the Royal Festival Hall with Charles Dutoit. I hope I can add to that mental list ‘Dutoit: Ein Heldeleben‘ at the Royal Festival Hall next week.

Roger Argente
Roger joined the RPO as Principal Bass Trombone in April 1992.
He also combines his RPO commitments with a part-time position at Trinity College of Music, where he is Head of Brass Studies and runs his own brass and percussion ensemble Superbrass.

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About Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Acknowledged as one of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) enjoys an international reputation for bringing audiences worldwide first-class performances and the highest possible standards of music-making across a diverse range of musical repertoire. This was the vision of the Orchestra’s flamboyant founder Sir Thomas Beecham, whose legacy is maintained today as the Orchestra thrives under the exceptional direction of its new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Maestro Charles Dutoit.
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