Mahler Stromab

Severance Hall
January 11 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
January 12 – Friday at 8:00 p.m.
January 13 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

Stromab [Downstream]

Johannes Maria Staud (b. 1974)
composed 2016

At a Glance
Staud wrote this work for large orchestra in 2016 on a co-commission from the Royal Danish Orchestra, Vienna Konzerthaus, The Cleveland Orchestra, and Carnegie Hall. It received its world premiere in Copenhagen on September 22, 2017, under the baton of Alexander Vedernikov. A further performance in Europe was presented on October 7 by the Vienna Symphony led by François-Xavier Roth. This week’s performances by The Cleveland Orchestra are the work’s United States premiere. The Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst will also perform it later this month at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The work runs about 15 minutes in performance. Staud scored it for a large orchestra of 2 flutes (second doubling bass flute), piccolo (doubling alto flute), 2 oboes (second doubling musette), english horn, 2 clarinets (second doubling basset horn), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 saxophones (soprano doubling alto, tenor doubling bass), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion players (performing on castanets, snare drum, slit drum, 4 bongos, 2 congas, tenor drum, bass drum, guiro, 5 tam-tams, wooden boxes, flexatone, cabasa, crotales, tambourine, thunder sheet, cowbells, sleigh bells, tubular bells, 3 bell plates, vibraphone, 9 gongs, chinese opera gongs), harp, piano, celesta, and strings.

About the Music
“. . . A rising river, perhaps, always suggests something of the ominous: many of the little islands I saw before me would probably have been swept away by the morning; this resistless, thundering flood of water touched the sense of awe. Yet I was aware that my uneasiness lay deeper far than the emotions of awe and wonder . . .”

—excerpted from The Willows
by Algernon Blackwood, 1907

The composer has written the following comments about this new work, titled Stromab (or “Downstream”):

This piece was inspired by Algernon Blackwood’s short story The Willows. One of the most beautiful and timeless tales of horror of all time, the novella details a canoe trip down the Danube River. The two young boaters are waylaid by high water and end up stranded in the marshy wetlands of a willow-populated island, seemingly pristine and untouched by civilization. Huddled in the tight space, they become enveloped in a strange web of impending doom that keeps thickening, ultimately reaching nearly cosmic dimensions — accompanied throughout by a mysteriously circling, elusive sound that hovers over the scenery.

It was not my intention to create program music. Instead, I wanted to explore the incredible vibrations that emanate from Blackwood‘s musically visionary prose and make literal musical sense of this image of a journey down the Danube.

—Johannes Maria Staud, February 2017

About the Composer

“When I start on a composition, I feel myself a bit like Ulysses in The Odyssey — I have the feeling of embarking on a voyage without knowing too much what shore I am steering toward.

—Johannes Maria Staud

An anecdote from early in his career tells us that Johannes Maria Staud was stopped at a London airport and made to give up a tuning fork from his carry-on luggage. Security personnel didn’t understand what it was, couldn’t find it on any list (prohibited or allowed), and opted instead to force its surrender.

New music and young composers too often find such lack of understanding — and are given too little benefit of doubt to simply go ahead and carry on. Yet Johannes Maria Staud took the incident all in stride, understanding it as a tale, a lesson, and a metaphor. Not everyone will be understanding, or interested, or helpful. Tell your story the way you want to tell it. And leave behind whatever (and even whomever) you must.

Staud and his artistry have grown immeasurably in acclaim and international recognition since Cleveland audiences were first introduced to him a decade ago, during his two-year stint as the Orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow, 2007-09. That composer-in-residence fellowship resulted in a brand-new, made-for-Cleveland piece titled On Comparative Meteorology, as well as opportunity to get to know other of his compositions and the man himself.

Since then, his career has only kept growing, startling and surprising and delighting audiences with new works of fresh thought and form, filled with contrasts and swarming with new sounds and ideas. At the end of 2018, a new opera debuts with the Vienna State Opera. Tuning forks may (or may not) be on any particular lists these days, but Johannes Maria Staud surely is.

His music is intellectually-based, often drawing or exploring a particular concept, a literary style or text, or even a philosophy, yet also always grounded in a musical language which — although spanning a large horizon — includes connections to music’s history and evolution. Thus, he is often welcomed by those interested in new music and those with a more traditional outlook. Since his time in Cleveland, his life has featured numerous performances around the world, along with receiving the Paul Hindemith Prize of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in 2009 and a stint as composer-in-residence at the Lucerne Festival in 2014 (with the premiere of a new opera), as well as the upcoming premiere in Vienna.

A new work should, of course, stand on its own merits — within Gustav Mahler’s own classic arguments for (and especially against) an explanation. Stromab (pronounced “STROHM-ab”), as Staud reveals in his own comments on the piece, was written in response to a classic tale of terror and paranoia (and the paranormal), set on desolate and wind-blown islet dunes of the Danube River. The author, Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), was a British journalist and prolific writer of ghost stories. I remember reading Blackwood’s tale “The Willows” as a teenager — and being terror-ifically unsettled. And then being reminded of it again, as an adult, visiting that famous river myself. Musically, as Staud’s piece circles our ears, we too may not know what is happening around us, or what is lurking out of sight within the orchestra. Let yourself wonder, and enjoy the suspense.

—Eric Sellen © 2017