Record labels often package orchestras performing Liszt’s “Dante Symphony,” based on Dante Alighieri’s journey through hell and purgatory, as depicted in “The Divine Comedy,” as a companion piece with the Hungarian composer’s “Faust Symphony.”
But Phoenix Symphony music director Michael Christie, who’s conducting “Dante Symphony” this week, says, “For my taste, that’s just a bit much of the same thing for one night.”
So he’s pairing the Liszt with Antonio Estévez’s “La Cantata Criolla,” a Venezuelan work based on a poem by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba called “Florentino and the Devil.”
“But we’re kind of keeping the spirit,” he says, “of Dante looking from hell up to heaven and Faust in the opposite direction.”
Christie says he’s always wanted to conduct the Estévez cantata “because it’s so ubiquitous in Venezuela.”
“It’s almost like a national theme in a way. And I thought that was really special, especially coming from a country that has such an eruption of musical talent coming from it now, that we take a moment to acknowledge and celebrate the tenor of their music. It’s a mix of many things that we associate with Latin music in terms of percussion and rhythm, but the drama is really very operatic.”
And the premise is suitably Faustian to work as a companion piece.
“It is a challenge,” Christie says, “between a prairie farmer and the devil. They have to out-sing each other, basically. So this singing contest happens. It’s hard to describe but the music flickers like a flame when they’re singing, and it’s all in this rapid-fire Venezuelan Spanish. It’s not like anything anyone will associate with concert singing.”
Neither half of the concert is meant to be a setup or a denouement, Christie says.
“Often in symphony concerts we try to lead the listener to the second half, to the big-piece symphony side of it. But this is just two big halves that are kind of monumental pieces. So it will just be a different kind of experience for people, which I treasure.”
Liszt’s “Dante Symphony” is a choral symphony for which the orchestra will be joined by the Phoenix Symphony Chorus led by chorus master Thomas Bookhout.
“There aren’t many choral symphonies,” Christie says. “But those that exist are quiet famous. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a choral symphony, which differs from an oratorio like Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in that the chorus only appears at the end as part of the intensification as the piece wraps up rather than being present the whole time.
“Historically, that’s quite a significant thing because composers in the early to mid-19th century were still trying to figure out how to grapple with the ever-increasing size of the orchestra. And incorporating these big choral forces was part of that thinking.”
There are other reasons Liszt’s “Dante” also stood out at the time of its Dresden premiere in November 1857.
“Liszt was composing at a time,” Christie says, “when the prevailing sentiment was that music should be beautiful — outwardly, blatantly beautiful and peaceful. But he chose quite a turbulent topic. And when you start off a piece of music with the low brass depicting the gates of hell in unison, you know you’re in different territory.”
The “Dante Symphony” was dedicated to Wagner, who served as a sounding board as Liszt was working on the symphony.
“Wagner had quite a bit to do with discussing the framework of how Liszt was going to deal with the choral element and deal with the three components of the Dante tome,” Christie says. “And he actually didn’t go the whole way. He just dealt with hell and purgatory. Both Wagner and Liszt felt that it was too difficult to actually deal with the heavenly aspect of the story. So he didn’t. Liszt has a magnificat just at the very end where the chorus joins in, but he spends hardly any time with that part of the story just because Wagner was not particularly entranced with overtly religious depictions. He thought it was soft and you couldn’t really portray that properly with music.”
As turbulent as the “Inferno” movement is in its depiction of the gates of hell, Christie says, “If you compare it to anything in our modern culture that would be depicting demons, this is a walk in the park. He was touching his toe into an area that people were not going so they felt at the time that it was quite extreme. But obviously, to our ears, just having low brass playing in unison in the low register doesn’t necessarily instill an epic sense of fear. It certainly gives us the right idea of what the motivation is, though.”