Although music has been an important aspect of cinema nearly from its beginning, few composers can claim that they have upstaged the films that made their music famous. Except for Richard Strauss, that is. The instantly recognizable pounding tympanis and soaring trumpets of the opening section of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra are now synonymous with the great film in which they featured so prominently — Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. When those same notes rang out from the Academy Festival Orchestra (AFO) on Saturday, July 12, at the Granada Theatre, they signaled the start of another odyssey, this one through three very different, yet equally spectacular, pieces of music.

The full Also Sprach Zarathustra TrV 176, Op. 30 of 1896 is much more varied musically than the well-known opening passage might indicate. Those trumpets do return, but only as one aspect of a sweeping tour through distant musical genres. This riot of different groupings and moods tests conductors to the limit, and the dynamic Edward Gardner made a great showing, investing the orchestra with the confidence to scale Strauss’s magic mountain of a composition. (Gardner is much in demand at the moment; he makes his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tangelwood on Friday, July 18, less than a week after his appearance here, and in a program that similarly features music by both Richard Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven.)

The piece that opened the second half of the program, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (1797), represented a departure from what had originally been programmed, the third piano concerto of Béla Bartók. While it would have been interesting to hear Jeremy Denk play the Bartók, there’s no question that the move to the Beethoven was the right thing. Denk has been playing this fantastically difficult concerto with professional orchestras quite a lot recently, and he has developed a reading of it that combines breathtaking tempi with the utmost clarity of accent and syncopation. The result at the Granada was stunning. His playing in the first movement as a whole, and particularly the cadenza, brought a new level of focus to Beethoven’s rhythmic invention, as did his rapid-fire conversations with the orchestra in the Rondo: Allegro scherzando. Combined with Gardner’s energetic conducting, Denk’s absorbing performance pulled the orchestra and the audience into a deep connection with this haunting and challenging music.

After a long and loud standing ovation for Denk and the Beethoven concerto, Gardner and the AFO concluded the evening with a lively, intelligent version of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2 (1912). Stepping aside from the classical path into Ravel’s sumptuous orchestral garden proved to be just the right way to end the evening. It was particularly entertaining to contemplate the difference between Ravel’s portrait of a mythic Greek sunrise in the opening of Daphnis and Chloe and Strauss’s rather more strident version of daybreak in Also Sprach. The choice of one or the other of these sunrise songs as musical wake-up calls would seem to have a potentially profound impact on the rest of one’s day. Is it going to be a delicate, contemplative Ravelian sort of morning, or are we in for another round of titanic Straussian struggle, complete with tympani? Stay tuned for the next chapter of this summer’s story in sound.


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