This past Sunday, the Triangle Wagner Society of North Carolina presented a virtual lecture and performance featuring German giant Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. The event’s presentation had to be modified several times before Sunday’s virtual stream, but it was certainly worth the wait. The lecture recital was initially scheduled to be presented in early 2020 but had to be postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; Sunday’s performance was slated to be live at Duke University, until inclement winter weather made the executive decision for the Society that the recital would be better off presented over Zoom. Once the format was solidified, the rest of the event went off without a hitch.

The Triangle Wagner Society opened the Zoom “waiting room” thirty minutes prior to the beginning of the performance, which gave me a glimpse into the coterie cultivated by the organization. The host, TWS president Margie Satinsky, welcomed members as they trickled into the digital concert hall, and the lighthearted yet sincere conversational exchanges made the event feel like a community endeavor. Once all attendees, including the performers, were present, Satinksy welcomed the virtual cohort by providing information about the logistics of the performance and upcoming events in the Wagner Society calendar, before welcoming the afternoon’s lecturer, Jung-Min “Mina” Lee. The Zoom call transitioned to prepared slides, and the first part of the program began.

The lecture was about twenty-five minutes in length and provided an abundance of information about the Wesendonck Lieder and the aspects of Wagner’s personal life that led to its composition. Lee began with preliminary facts about Wagner and Matilda Wesendonck, the woman for whom the lieder was written and whose poems supplied the text. After familiarizing the audience with who Wesendonck was to Wagner, the lecture transitioned into exploring the lieder itself and how its compositional elements related to the extramusical details. Lee’s lecture was thoughtfully paced, and the accompanying slides provided a succinct visual summary of the details. Not only did the lecture contain biographical information and musical analysis, but also accompanying auditory snippets with visual score. These examples demonstrated how motifs present in the lieder also appeared in Wagner’s later works, like the tragic opera Tristan and Isolde, of which Lee also provided excerpts. The lecture presented a plethora of knowledge that bolstered my previously nonexistent understanding of the piece and allowed for a deeper appreciation of the performance.

Once the lecture was over, Satinksy thanked Lee and introduced soprano LaToya Lain and pianist David Heid for their pre-recorded performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. Approximately twenty minutes in length, the song cycle’s five movements showcased Lain’s impressive vocal skill and Heid’s steadfast accompaniment. Lain, having appeared with the Metropolitan Opera in their recent production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, produced a gorgeous tone with obvious resonance that shone despite the digital format. Lain navigated Wagner’s complex harmonies and phrases with ease, and the emotional commitment was sublime; her facial expressions and stage presence morphed to demonstrate each movement’s individual meaning. Although I don’t speak German, I felt as though I inherently understood each song. Lee’s detailed lecture also contributed to this, and the combination of academic information and vocal prowess created an intensely meaningful event. Heid’s piano accompaniment deserves commendation as well, as Wagner wrote equally challenging music for both performers; Heid followed Lain’s rubato and inflections effortlessly, providing a solid foundation for the soloist to bloom. From a production standpoint, the pre-recorded nature of this performance allowed for a visual experience not often available to live audiences: my experience was enhanced by the camerawork, which included close-ups of the piano keyboard and varying angles of Lain.

After the recital, the Zoom returned to Satinsky, who opened up the virtual floor for questions from the audience. It was a treat to have Lee, Lain, and Heid present for the meeting, and all three performers demonstrated kindness, gratitude, and humility as they answered the group’s queries. In spite of the scheduling delays, this performance turned out to be a wonderful experience and I argue that the digital format made it even more so – the entire call was recorded and supplied to the audience to revisit at their leisure, and the intimate nature of the Zoom call made for interactions with the soloists that might not have been possible otherwise. I thank the Triangle Wagner Society for a pleasant afternoon and hope to experience more of what they have to offer in the future. TWS will continue to host monthly lecture events through June.