Michael Tilson Thomas rehearses and conducts Strauss's Ein Heldenleben
Introduction, Rehearsal, and Performance
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With Ein Heldenleben, completed in 1898, a year after Don Quixote, and first performed in Frankfurt under the composer's baton in March 1899, Strauss brought to an end his decade-long exploration of the tone poem. In it, he deployed his largest orchestra to date, with quadruple woodwind, eight horns, trumpets on-stage and off, three trombones, tubas, an array of drums and other percussion, two harps and strings. With all these instruments on the stage of the Barbican concert hall, the challenge for the programme-makers was to find space for the cameras to be able to give an overview of the vast instrumental forces, and at the same time enter the orchestra to see the details of Strauss's writing in action.
Tilson Thomas is here master of ceremonies, as much as lecturer and conductor. As Barrie Gavin remembers, "What he did very well was convey Strauss's anguish, and his terror of bad notices, in the portrayal of the mean critics." The idea of the battling musician even led Tilson Thomas to suggest coming on in a suit of armour, until the difficulties of getting out of it to conduct were pointed out. He and the orchestra had recently made two acclaimed discs of Strauss tone poems, and their account of Heldenleben was hailed as "outstanding" in the pages of Gramophone magazine. There, as in the film, a highlight was the eloquent account of the wordless recitative of the "Hero's Companion" section given by the orchestra's then leader Alexander Barantschik, a testament to the qualities that later led Tilson Thomas to invite the violinist to California to lead the San Francisco Symphony.