Oklahoma native Sarah Coburn will join the Tulsa Symphony for its first concert of the new year in a program titled “Strauss and Schumann.”
The “Schumann” in the title refers to the Symphony No. 2 in C Major by Robert Schumann, a work for which the composer drew some of his inspiration from the music of J.S. Bach and which was written during a period of emotional and physical turmoil for Schumann.
Principal guest conductor Daniel Hege will lead the concert, which will open with Edward Elgar’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor.
The “Strauss” is Richard Strauss, whose “Four Last Songs” will feature Coburn as soprano soloist.
The songs are among the final works Strauss wrote before his death in 1949, and have been described by some critics as “a haunting, eloquent meditation on the coming of death.” Three of the songs — “Frühling (Spring),” “September” and “Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep)” — use poems by Hermann Hesse as their texts, while the text of the fourth, “Im Abendrot (At Sunset),” is by Joseph von Eichendorff.
Coburn has frequently performed Strauss’ music in the past, including starring in a production of his opera “Der Rosenkavalier” with the Cincinnati Opera and recording several Strauss songs for her recital album, “Oh, When I Dream.” But this will be her first time to perform the “Four Last Songs,” “and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity,” Coburn said.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
What is it about Richard Strauss’ music that has for you an unique appeal, both as a listener and as a performer?
My feelings about Richard Strauss and these songs in particular could probably be described as unhealthy idolatry. He wrote for the soprano voice like no one else, and I don’t think any composer compares when it comes to painting the text. The orchestration is lush and beautifully descriptive of the poems from Hesse and Eichendorff.
The tone of the “Four Last Songs” is certainly elegiac, and the texts touch on themes of time passing, of things coming to an end. Is that, for you, a difficult topic to address, even in song?
Yes, it is difficult. These songs were written by Strauss a year before his death, as he looked back over his long life and marriage to Pauline (de Ahna, a well-known and highly regarded operatic soprano). Anyone in mid-life can appreciate the melancholy evoked by these texts and the way they are so gloriously set. Even if one has no current reason for empathy with the text, it is not difficult to imagine how he might have felt composing it. The music alone is overwhelmingly emotional.
Are there things that you draw on to help you in performing these songs, to give them the proper gravitas?
Yes, but when we singers allow our own emotions to enter something like these songs, we are on dangerous ground. There comes a point when I need to be more concerned about conveying the beauty of the words and music and not my own feelings about it. Sometimes I get teary when working on them, but that is part of the process. You have to get all of the “self” stuff out of the way first.
Is preparing for, and performing in, a concert setting a different process than for a staged opera? Or is it just a matter of singing your best, regardless of the setting?
It is different because I am not able to escape into a character with the added tools of costume, wigs and makeup. It is a bit more vulnerable but not so much as a recital setting. There are less rehearsals, of course, because there is no staging.
Some performers have altered the order of the songs when they perform them. What order will the songs be presented at this concert?
These will be presented in the most traditional order, one that I imagine Strauss would have approved of — “Frühling,” “September,” “Beim Schlafengehen” and “Im Abendrot.” He wrote “Im Abendrot” first, but he intended it to close the set. The other three make the most sense in this order: the glories of springtime, the wistful glance back at the end of summer, going to sleep and the sunset of death.