Ahead of her debut with the RTÉ NSO debut at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on November 1st, Grammy award-winning conductor JoAnn Falletta writes for Culture about the programme for what promises to be a very memorable night for music lovers...

I am delighted to be making my RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra debut with a program of storytelling, of literature, of art and history- a concert so vivid that it could practically define the concept of programmatic music.

Ottorino Respighi - a man in love with his adopted city of Rome, a patriot determined to inspire a sense of unity and pride in his fellow countrymen, and an Italian set upon reclaiming the art of orchestral music for Italy - composes with a sense of cinematic sweep that is breathtaking. His Rome trilogy consists of three tone poems that celebrate the fountains, pines and holidays of the city. We are performing two of those - Fountains and Pines. Each piece contains four movements that combine with amazing imagination not just the physical place and appearance of the fountains and pine groves, but also take us through the hours of the day, and magically weave together the Rome of the early 20th Century with the ancient empire of two thousand years ago. Without a word, we are taken on a multidimensional tour in impressionistic paintings that are translucent and shimmering, existing at the same time in past and present.

Grammy award-winning conductor JoAnn Falletta (Photo: David Adam Beloff)

We begin with Respighi's Fountains of Rome, and we find ourselves in the Valle Giulia at dawn, in a peaceful pastorale landscape that somehow could exist in either past or present. A startling horn call from a Triton rouses us and thrusts us into Rome in the fullness of the morning, and we can envision both the ancient sea creature himself and his statue in the midst of the traffic of the 20th-century city. The extraordinary antics of the undersea world (perfectly captured by Respighi in jets of music that literally sprinkle upon us) lead us into the majesty of noon, and the regal Neptune as he sails with his sea horse chariot on the surface of the famous Trevi fountain. At sunset, Respighi conjures the mystery and glory of the Renaissance though his portrait of the fountain of the great arts patron, the Medici family, as the bells of churches toll the Vespers. The music is grand and splendid, but possesses an underlying melancholy and poignancy that is Respighi's inexplicable magic.

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Many feel that The Fountains is the composer's true masterpiece, but it is hard not to be completely overwhelmed by the power and poetry of The Pines of Rome. Here as well the composer creates a tapestry of the two dimensions of past and present, weaving the hours of the day into its texture. From the laughter of children playing under the pines at the Villa Borghese (whose strident trumpets shocked the 20th-century audience) to the quiet sentinel pines hiding the entrance to the Catacombs, Respighi creates stunning panels that fade on into the other. The Catacombs in particular give us a frisson of the world of the past - a ghost voice of an early Christian hymn floats to the surface, filled with religious mystery and fear. The shadows of the afternoon fade into twilight, and the full moon reveals the stark outline of the pines of the Janiculum. A gorgeous clarinet intones the melody of the evening songstress - the nightingale- and then amazingly we hear that clarinet transformed into the actual bird (recorded in his garden by the composer) - perhaps the loveliest moment of the entire piece. Night falls, and dawn follows, and the terrified people of Rome awake to hear the footsteps of a vast army along the Appian Way, marching between the rows of pine trees toward the city. Is it a foreign army, coming to attack and plunder? Or is it their own Roman warriors returning home, victorious? You will have to listen to find out- as the brass on stage and in the balcony spectacularly merge in one of the greatest endings of any musical composition.

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We open our program with a Strauss masterpiece, his extraordinary Don Quixote, Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character. May I humbly submit a poem I wrote after my first encounter years ago with the amazing work, with great respect and admiration for Alban Gerhardt, who will be our intrepid Knight of the Woeful Countenance.


Tilting at Windmills

Cervantes set out to ridicule him

But Strauss did not see it quite that way

In poking fun at the madman he came to see

some part of himself in the woe-faced Knight

in his benign insanity, in his impossible quest.

And in the tremulous poetry of Don Quixote's cello,

Strauss makes believers of us all.

But reality finally ensnares him

Past sleep

Past hope

Past tears

he relinquishes that inspired lunacy

dying over his cello in a glissando

of vanquished dreams.

Strauss knew the cold heart of truth:

illusion is what makes life possible.

Grammy-winning conductor conductor JoAnn Falletta makes her RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra debut conducting Richard Strauss' Don Quixote, with cellist Alban Gerhardt, and Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, on Friday 1 November at the National Concert Hall - find out more here.