Embark on A Celestial Odyssey: Strauss' 'Also sprach Zarathustra' and Williams' 'Zodiac Suite'
Join us on Sunday, Nov. 19 at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2 as The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert brings you a celestial odyssey by way of a rarely performed jazz suite and an iconic fanfare. Charlotte Blake Alston narrates this episode as our special guest host.
When Richard Strauss wrote his tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra in 1896, he could hardly have grasped what power it would come to hold on global consciousness. The faint notes in the brass, the rolling timpani; the triumphant fanfare. The piece has embedded itself into popular culture, notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Psych-rockers Deep Purple covered it, and both Elvis Presley and wrestler Ric Flair borrowed it for their walk-out themes.
Conductor Cristian Măcelaru says that the opening of Strauss’ tone poem provides just a taste of what lies ahead. “It’s an unbelievable journey of exploring every element of human emotion that exists,” he says. “And for this reason, I perform this music a lot, because it helps me explore my own emotions.”
Nearly five decades after the debut of Zarathustra, a composer in New York City debuted her Zodiac Suite at Town Hall. It was Mary Lou Williams’ first time writing for strings and woodwinds, but the result was versatile, ethereal, and demonstrated a deep reserve of musical knowledge in the idiom.
By the mid-1940s, Williams had mastered nearly every piano style under the jazz umbrella: ragtime, bebop, stride and swing. She’d studied 20th-century classical composers like Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky, and thematic jazz composers like her contemporary Duke Ellington. It was perhaps Ellington’s writing and her own curiosity in numerology that drew her to write a 12-movement suite dedicated to each astrological sign.
Enter pianist and composer Aaron Diehl. A Juilliard-trained pianist equally fluent in Bud Powell or Maurice Ravel, Diehl has also performed the music of George Gershwin with The Philadelphia Orchestra on multiple occasions. Toward the end of 2020, he began reaching out to orchestras to present Williams’ Zodiac Suite with chamber ensemble and jazz soloists. For this concert with the Philadelphians at Verizon Hall, clarinetist Evan Christopher performed on “Gemini,” tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover played on “Cancer,” and Brandon Lee was featured on “Virgo.” Mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran joined the ensemble for the finale, “Pisces.”
Diehl also worked for months to refine Zodiac’s orchestration and sound with The Knights, a Brooklyn-based orchestra; their recording of the suite has just been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Classical Compendium category.
Before he performed the Zodiac Suite with The Philadelphia Orchestra in April 2023, Diehl spoke with WRTI about the logistical hurdles and artistic buy-in it takes to get works like this even considered for the stage.
“I've learned a lot from doing this, in terms of how you have to kind of be persistent about something that you really believe in and love,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to see the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, or The Philadelphia Orchestra say ‘Yeah, we’ll play this.’ And for people to be exposed to the brilliance of Mary Lou Williams.”
Williams: The Zodiac Suite
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Cristian Măcelaru, conductor
Aaron Diehl, piano
David Wong, bass
Aaron Kimmel, drums
Evan Christopher, clarinet
Nicole Glover, tenor saxophone
Brandon Lee, trumpet
WRTI PRODUCTION TEAM:
Charlotte Blake Alston: Host
Alex Ariff: Senior Producer
Melinda Whiting: Contributing Editor
Nate Chinen: Contributing Producer
Susan Lewis: Consulting Producer
Joseph Patti: Broadcast Engineer
Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcasts every Sunday at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1, streaming at WRTI.org, on the WRTI mobile app, and on your smart speaker. Listen again on Mondays at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2. Listen for up to two weeks after broadcast on WRTI Replay, accessible from the WRTI homepage (look for Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert On Demand).