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In the early preparation for Saturday's Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert, Music Director Toshi Shimada sits with soprano Jurate Svedaite in her office at Connecticut College, the score for Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs on the piano before them.
"I have always wanted to do the Strauss lieder here," Shimada says. "A lot of sopranos dream of singing this."
"I've always dreamed of it," says the singer, and after a one-beat pause, she bursts into laughter. "And now I'm scared!"
It's hard to imagine Svedaite fearing any role. The Lithuanian native, just returned from a recital festival there, has been the prima donna of the Connecticut Lyric Opera through its decade of growth here, singing the testing lead roles in such varied works as "La Traviata," "Eugene Onegin" and "Le Nozze di Figaro." But an orchestral song cycle, particularly this one, is another matter.
"In an opera, there's movement, there's pauses, you can hide behind scenery," she says. "Here, you are alone and feel very naked out in front of the orchestra."
The Strauss songs call for immense vocal skills, for a big, mature voice with power throughout the range. These are scores that a soprano must grow into as her technique and voice mature.
"These are very difficult," she says. "He really wrote for the voice as if it were another instrument of the orchestra."
And anyone familiar with the Strauss orchestral tone poems knows that the late Romantic composer's orchestration is extravagant.
Svedaite will be the guest soloist in the ECSO's annual concert at the Garde Arts Center with the ECSO Chorus, and this year, Shimada has designed a program paying tribute to the bicentennial of the births of the twin pillars of the opera stage, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner.
"The chorus has been singing masses and oratorios," the conductor says, "but I thought it would be fun to do something different."
So the choral section of the concert will be three Wagner and three Verdi opera choruses, with the 80-voice ECSO Chorus led by Mark Singleton, a rare chance for an audience other than that at the Metropolitan Opera to hear these choruses sung by such a large vocal contingent.
The Four Last Songs, however, have a special aura about them. Written at the end of composer's life, after 65 years of composition, these songs are truly valedictory in both text and tone. When he wrote The Four Last Songs in 1948, Strauss concluded the song cycle with a quotation from his youthful 1888 tone poem "Death and Transfiguration," a frank and moving farwell.
The arc of Strauss's musical life is hard to imagine. His earliest works in the mid-1880s were the height of German Romanticism, melodic and over-the-top in emotional heft. He became the master of a new form, the tone poem, in which the tales of Don Juan or a hero's adventures morphed into orchestral storytelling.
By the turn of the century, he was, by acclamation, The Greatest Living Composer, and he conquered the most important of venues, the opera house, with musically and dramatically shocking operas like "Salome" and "Elektra." He went on to compose what may be the last great Romantic opera, "Der Rosenkavalier," then watched time pass him by. He remained prolific, yet he was seen as passé by the Modernists, and he endured the privations and humiliations of the Nazi era before seeing his country destroyed.
Strauss composed 16 operas and more than 450 songs, and his Four Last Songs are the summation of an immense career of writing for the voice.
"Physically and vocally and the text … as far as the soprano repertoire goes, this is it," Svedaite says "These are the top."
Shimada knows that even though orchestral song cycles aren't core repertoire, the Strauss set wins devotees.
"I've done these several times," he says, "and every time, people come up to me afterward and say, 'I didn't know about these!' Then they go to the CD store.'"
The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, 8 p.m. Saturday, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; with 7 p.m. pre-concert talk by ECSO Chorus Dirctor Mark Singleton; $30-$60, with student and seniors discounts; (860) 443-2876, gardearts.org.