Richard Strauss summed it up. “I may not be a first-rate composer,” he once said. “But I am a first-class second-rate composer.”

Was this tongue-in-cheek? Probably. Strauss knew that for several decades he was unquestionably Germany’s foremost living composer. What he couldn’t have anticipated at the time of his death in 1949 was that his operas and his orchestral works would go on to earn ever-increasing critical esteem and popularity, admired worldwide for both their sparkling orchestration and their sheer beauty.

With that in mind, the Minnesota Orchestra is devoting three weeks of programs to Strauss’ orchestral works to commemorate the composer’s 150th birthday: He was born June 11, 1864. The programs are varied and well chosen, though surely a concert version of one of the operas during these weeks — or a selection of key scenes with a singer or two — would have given this Strauss Festival, as it is being called, something closer to a festive character.

As it was, two of the works on the program Friday night at Orchestra Hall were drawn from operas: “Salome’s Dance (Dance of the Seven Veils)” from “Salome” and the Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier.” With Andrew Litton at the podium, the evening opened with “Don Quixote,” perhaps the best — and most imaginative — of the composer’s large symphonic poems, a work this orchestra knows well. Edo de Waart, who will preside over the final week in the Strauss series, recorded it with this orchestra for Virgin Classics in the early 1990s when he was music director.

We know that music has the power to conjure images, and it did so, for at least one listener, quite vividly Friday night. One of them emerged in the finale of “Don Quixote.” Strauss, who claimed he could translate anything into sound (including a fork and spoon), here in the most tender music imaginable — and beautifully played by the orchestra’s principal cellist Anthony Ross — describes the death of the noble but delusional Don. After a long lyrical passage, the cello line drops an octave, B to B, and one could almost see the old guy, sitting there in his knight’s helmet, his head slowly dropping to his chest, as he gives up the ghost.

The other image was less ethereal. The seductive woodwinds and dance-club beat at the start of “Salome” evoked not so much a depraved teenage princess in the court of King Herod as a more contemporary figure, Miley Cyrus, let’s say, twerking for the head of John the Baptist.

Litton began “Quixote” too slowly. It lost momentum. But the later sections were vividly realized, though the final chords were too loud, as was much of the performance. Ross, however, was splendid throughout, as was Thomas Turner in the viola solos. The famous “Presentation of the Rose” section of “Der Rosenkavalier” caught just the right tone of lyrical ecstasy, and “Salome” was properly dazzling and creepy.

Overall, the composer had it right: As a performance, this was first-class second-rate Strauss.


Michael Anthony writes about music.