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A pair apiece by Strauss and Ravel marks Orchestra Hall program this weekend

Four pieces of near-equal length dot the Minnesota Orchestra program beginning this morning and continuing Friday and Saturday nights at Orchestra Hall. The featured soloist is Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the conductor is Hungarian Gilbert Varga, and the compositions include a spirited tone poem, a waltz, a faux-waltz, and, no joking, a one-handed piano concerto.

Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan” launches the proceedings with suitable vigor. Often regarded as the quintessential tone poem in Strauss’ oeuvre (which also includes the durable “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Death and Transfiguration,” and “Don Quixote”), this is music both complex and swashbuckling, although the then-24 year-old Strauss chose one of the more dour treatments of the rakish title character, a poem by Nikolaus Lenau that has him succumbing in a swordfight. It is capped by a lyrical oboe solo.

Here is a particularly strong excerpt of the piece by the Berlin Philharmonic.

The Minnesota Orchestra will also lead off with Strauss after intermission, performing his more obscure “Burleske,” one of his earliest compositions, written for his mentor, pianist Hans von Bulow, who found it “unplayable.” It is a difficult piece that will test the mettle of guest pianist Hamelin, bold and yet graceful, with definite influences of Brahms and the waltz form in the latter stages after a spirited opening. Here is Glenn Gould playing the first third of it.

The other two items on the program were composed by the French impressionist Maurice Ravel, who, like Strauss, wrote during the turning of the 20th century. Hamelin will tackle “The Left Handed Piano Concerto,” written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his arm in World War I. Performed in varying tempos but as a continuous movement during its 19-minute length, the often playful piece uses broad chords to simulate the feel of two-handed playing.

Here is another excerpt from the Berlin Philharmonic, with Pierre Boulez conducting and Pierre-Laurent Almard as soloist.

The concert will conclude with “La Valse,” Ravel’s tribute to his love of waltz rhythms and to Johann Strauss in particular. According to the program notes, [pdf] Ravel described his original conception of the piece in great detail: “Whirling clouds give glimpses, through rifts, of couples waltzing. The clouds scatter little by little. One sees an immense hall peopled with a twirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of chandeliers bursts forth fortissimo. An Imperial Court, about 1855.”

The music rings true to this vision, which again features crowd-pleasingly melodic orchestrations. Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the National Orchestra of France through the climactic section in 1975.

The Minnesota Orchestra performs Strauss and Ravel, with guests including pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin and conductor Gilbert Varga. At Orchestra Hall this morning at 11 a.m. (preceded by a fashion show) and Friday and Saturday nights, May 21 and 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22-$56 this morning and $26-$84 for the evening concerts.

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