Midwinter malaise isn’t really an issue on the Gulf Coast. There’s no steady winter weather, daylight is more abundant than at more northern latitudes and nearly a month of Mardi Gras revels make for splendid distraction.
But if you need a wintery pick-me-up anyway, Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has a bright and bold one. On Jan. 25 and 26, they will fill the gilded interior of the Saenger Theatre (6 S. Joachim St.) with “Bravura.”
An aspirational title? Certainly, but it’s easy to see why when they loaded the program with three titanic composers whose work has thrilled generations.
Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major is offered as a showcase for MSO principal horn and CrossFit enthusiast Mollie Pate. Maybe an overdue one.
“She’s been one of our stars for the brass section for years now and we think it’s time to feature her, so we’re featuring her in the concerto she enjoys playing the most,” MSO Music Director Scott Speck said.
Strauss was highly prolific in his early career, producing masterpieces — including two symphonies, a serenade and suite for large wind ensemble, chamber works, numerous songs and piano pieces and sketches of the Burleske for piano and orchestra — faster than the public could absorb them. This was all before age 30.
In his late teens, Strauss created a showpiece for his father who was a principal horn player with the Munich Opera. His Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major combines influences from Austria and Germany.
“It’s very Mozartian except it was written by a late Romantic composer also under the influence of Wagner. There’s a delight in the influence of Mozart’s style but at the same time you can feel a little bit of the stretched tonality you would feel under Wagner. More Classical than Romantic, it’s a lovely piece,” Speck said.
The Strauss contrasts nicely with the selected work by Peter Tchaikovsky. The Russian master’s Serenade for Strings in C major is for smaller voices. There are no woodwinds, no brass, no percussion and no harp. It’s just violins, violas, cellos and basses.
Ironically, Speck considers it one of Tchaikovsky’s more wildly passionate works. He nods to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s belief in the strings as the most expressive instrument.
“If you have to have just one section of the orchestra play a passionate piece, I would go for the strings because they’re capable of such infinite variation in tone color and dynamics. Probably the most of any section in the orchestra,” Speck said.
Another irony: Tchaikovsky penned the serenade almost simultaneously with the bombastic “1812 Overture,” a commissioned work for which he did little to hide his ambivalence. Like the aforementioned Strauss number, Tchaikovsky’s serenade is an homage to Mozart.
Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 in F major came about later in his life, namely due to the composer’s mercurial view of his own work. His perfectionist attitude worked against him for decades, spurring him to destroy work never completed due to dissatisfaction.
“He felt so much of the burden of Bach and Beethoven on his shoulders. You look at his scores and there are literally no mistakes. There are no typos, missing flats or sharps because he was so careful. It took him about 20 years to write his first,” Speck said.
Once Brahms released his first symphony in his 40s, three others followed quickly. Of them, Speck noted, the third is different.
“Only one ends quietly and that’s the third symphony. Because of the quiet ending, it’s suffered the fate of a few other pieces, notably [Rimsky-Korsakov’s] ‘Scheherazade’ and [Gustav] Holst’s ‘The Planets.’ They’re played less often than you would think because they don’t have a big finish,” Speck said.
Perhaps it’s a hallmark of Brahms’s relatively advanced age when he composed it. It’s absent the showy splash of younger talents.
“It’s an autumnal piece in that it feels very mature. It makes you sort of reflect back on your life and it’s an extremely moving piece, but there are moments in it not so much thrilling but more satisfying,” Speck said.
He noted MSO has put off playing Brahms’s third symphony for years. Its inclusion has Speck “thrilled.”
Saturday’s concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Sunday’s matinee is at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets run $15 – $80 and can be purchased online at mobilesymphony.org, by phone at 251-432-2010 or at the MSO box office (257 Dauphin St.). Through MSO’s Big Red Ticket program, sponsored by Alabama Power, students in grades K – 12 can attend Sunday’s performance free when accompanied by a paying adult.
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