© 2024 KLCC

136 W 8th Ave
Eugene OR 97401

Contact Us

FCC Applications
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cow bells, sheet metal, wind machines and more: what it takes to hit all the notes in Strauss's 'Alpine Symphony'

On Thursday, audiences in Eugene will have the opportunity to experience a large orchestra and a few unique instruments when the Oregon Bach Festival presents German composer Richard Strauss’s “An Alpine Symphony.”

The epic score conveys a dusk-to-dawn hike, during which listeners encounter a river, tinkling waterfall, pasture with cows and sheep, a mountain summit, and thunderous storm.

The piece opens before dawn, with low, long tones. Yet amid the darkness, the strings, trombones and bassoons hint to us that something just out of sight is coming our way. Eric Jacobsen, the Brooklyn-based conductor who will lead the performance for the Oregon Bach Festival, likens it to the feeling of waking up just a little bit too early.

"It's still pitch black, but then you feel something. So almost you feel it before you see it, and the light starts changing. And it just is that the beginning of the day,” Jacobsen said in an interview by phone ahead of the performance.

The piece, first performed in 1915, is among Strauss's tone poems, works that leverage an orchestra's expansive musical palette to tell a story. It celebrates hard-won human achievement, and also, the natural world. Jacobsen told KLCC he has a particular fondness for the symphony’s grandeur at the summit, when a crash of cymbals assures us we've arrived.

Unusual sounds

Unique instruments help tell the story throughout the piece. In a section that carries us through an alpine pasture, cow bells can be heard gently, almost whimsically, ringing within the score.

"He's actually meaning for us to hear cows walking around here. No, he doesn't ask the musicians to 'Mooo,' but pretty close," Jacobsen said with a laugh.

Wind is created using a giant, wooden drum with a crank that spins beneath a sheet.

"If you do it slowly, it sounds like a slow wind going through the trees. And then the faster you go, it starts sounding more and more like the wind is just flying around," he explained.

Any good storm needs thunder, and that’s where an item you’d usually see in construction – sheet metal – makes it onto the stage.

"Sometimes you shake it, sometimes you strike it with a mallet for different types of effects. It literally sounds like thunder," Jacobsen said.

During the performance you'll also hear a Heckelphone. It’s sort of a four-foot tall cross between an oboe and a bassoon.

"It sounds like an old, old soul speaking the truth," Jacobsen said. "It's spectacular."

A 'beefy' sound

Dr. Steve Vacchi, a professor in the University of Oregon’s school of music and dance, learned to play the instrument specifically for Strauss’s piece.

The Heckelphone, a woodwind, is so large it sits on the ground supported by a peg, and is held vertically between the musician's knees.

"It has a wide bore. So it can make a pretty beefy sound. But I think it's beautiful," said Vacchi. "And if if you know what an oboe or maybe an English horn sounds like, you can certainly hear some similarities."

To get the most out of the upcoming performance, Vacchi says it never hurts to warm up your ear.

"I think it's always helpful to listen to a piece at least once before you go to a live concert," Vacchi told KLCC. He gave the same advice to his mother, who he helped earlier this week locate a recorded performance on YouTube.

Still, nothing beats experiencing it live.

"I just can't wait to be there. And I know that everyone that comes to the concert will be just joyful, and blown away by all the beauty that will be onstage," said Jacobsen, who will conduct Thursday's performance.

The Oregon Bach Festival performs Strauss’s “An Alpine Symphony” July 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hult Center.

Jill Burke became KLCC's arts reporter in February, 2023.
Related Content