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Orchestral Music Review

A Rare All-Wagner Evening with the NC Symphony

March 18, 2004 - Southern Pines, NC:

For reasons that are clouded by the mists of history and prejudice, all-Wagner concerts have become relative rarities. This has not always been the case. Outside the opera house, where his major stage works remain popular, many important maestri - including not only German conductors but also the strongly anti-Fascist Arturo Toscanini - have devoted entire evenings to Wagner, playing what are often called "bleeding chunks," ripped from his lengthy scores. That Wagner was personally reprehensible seems certain. That some of his most reprehensible ideas were embraced, long after his death, by the Nazis, and that some members of his family in turn embraced the Nazis, are likewise matters of record. His music is controversial, in part, because of his political and social views, but his compositions rank among the most glorious masterworks ever set to paper. William Henry Curry knows this, and William Henry Curry is championing Wagner's music, leading it whenever he can with the NC Symphony. The program presented in Southern Pines on March 18, repeated in Salisbury tonight (3/19) and for NCS donors on the 20th (which Raleigh event is not open to the general public), is the orchestra's first all-Wagner concert in memory and may be the first one, ever, although nearly everything on the program appears to have been played in our state on previous occasions. That the orchestra is not large enough to play Wagner, and that several principals were missing in action in Southern Pines, need not long detain us. If, from a pit band in most major opera houses, one heard playing like that given in Pinecrest High School's Lee Auditorium, one would be thrilled. Of course there aren't enough strings or winds or brass - but to sidestep that problem, conventional reductions of the originals were employed, and those reductions, as played by our stellar musicians, and as led by our committed Maestro, were plenty impressive. More troubling were the minor glitches that plagued the concert - some split notes, a noticeably bad false entry, general weakness in the lower strings (due to insufficient numbers), etc. And the concert was plagued, too, by stage lights that flickered every time the HVAC compressors kicked in, and by noise from the HVAC system that intruded on the quietest sections of the music. But even these problems did not significantly mar the impact created by the splendor of the playing - which included luscious solo contributions from Concertmaster Rebekah Binford, Assistant Principal Viola David Marschall, Principal Cello Bonnie Thron, Principal Horn Andrew McAfee, Principal Harp Anita Burroughs-Price, the orchestra's strong wind and brass sections, and - except for one place, where the triangle was unduly prominent - the percussion section. And nothing - no nothing - detracted from the herculean achievement of the Maestro, whose commitment to the works at hand was palpable from start to finish, and whose skill as an orchestral leader of world-class quality helped our musicians excel throughout one of the NCS' most important concerts in years and years.

The short, intense program wound up featuring excerpts from seven of Wagner's stage works, omitting only Tristan, Meistersinger, and Parsifal from the main part of the canon (and Hochzeit, Feen, Liebesverbot, and Rienzi from the first part of the composer's career).

Things got underway with the Overture to Der fliegende Holländer, its storm music whipped up to gale-force and more. This is, of course, the first of the real Wagner operas, in which he departed from the popular success he'd achieved with Rienzi to chart his new course toward the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk . Dutchman (to use part of its English title) is a good introduction to Wagner, for it is relatively short and its characters are believably human. Its Overture was a good place to start in a program being heard by people who, due to years of programming neglect, have probably not heard much Wagner here. And the Overture to Tannhäuser, given in its Paris (as opposed to the original Dresden) version, with the ballet music Wagner was obliged to create for the French premiere, was a good second selection. Yes, we missed the voices, but the version played was the standard orchestral edition, and Curry kept it moving, and the overall effect was entirely positive. These two bits made for a fairly brief first half, but the drama was intense; here and elsewhere, it was evident that Curry is a master of the theatre, as well as pure orchestral music, and his pacing and direction consistently reflected his intimate familiarity with the complete works.

The second half of the concert was devoted to excerpts from each of the Ring operas, starting with the "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla" from Das Rheingold. This began with the climax of Loge's summoning of the mists in Part IV and continued to the end of the opera, including a transcription of Wotan's "Folge mir, Frau," sung to the shrew who is his spouse (and to the other gods) before they cross the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, and during part of which the three fishes (Rhine Maidens) plead for the return of the stolen and cursed gold that will wind up causing everyone so much trouble (and consuming a total of 16 hours of the audience's time, before the whole thing ends apocalyptically...).

From Die Walküre came the popular "Ride of the Valkyries," again (of course) without the voices that in stage productions make the extended scene one of the highlights of the entire Ring . The "Forest Murmurs" bit, from Siegfried , brings the Forest Bird to the young hero's attention; it was probably the weakest number performed, but thanks to Curry it was highly effective as pure music. The finale, from the Prologue to Götterdämmerung (misspelled in the program...), was "Siegfried's Rhine Journey," another famous orchestral chunk, preceded by the "Dawn" section, often but not invariably played with it. This was not mentioned in the "Concert Program Addendum" that was given to patrons, nor was it discussed in the program notes; it is separated from the "Rhine Journey" by the stunning duet for Brünnhilde and Siegfried that begins, "Zu neuen Taten....," and it is basically the last happy moment for the ill-fated couple, so the music is pure joy from start to finish, reflecting the dawn of a new day bringing what they believe will be unlimited possibilities. That is doesn't turn out that way may be the subject of another review, on another occasion. For now, suffice it to say that the performance captured the rapture and the magic at this point in the cycle, and the response of the full house demonstrated the crowd's pleasure.

A rare encore - the festive Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, darkened only slightly in the closing measures by hints of the angst that is to come, capped this splendid evening with still more brilliant playing. It made one glad to be alive and kicking and living in the Tar Heel State. It would be worth the trip to Salisbury tonight (3/19) to hear it again. It's too good a program to be closed to the public, so maybe the marketing gurus will open it up for Triangle residents, too, in the 11th hour.... In any event, music lovers can only hope that these excerpts do not represent Curry's last words on Wagner, orchestrally or otherwise.