Monday, February 19, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Wagner

On Thursday evening I went to Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic, under the baton of its new Music Director Jaap van Zweden, perform the opening act of one of Wagner's best known operas as well as the New York premiere of a work by John Luther Adams.

The program opened with Adams's Dark Waves (2007), originally a commission from Musica Nova (the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra’s Commissioning Club) for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra.  Adams is something of a maverick as a composer, as much dedicated to environmental activism - he has served as executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center - as to music.  He has nevertheless been recognized as one of America's leading composers and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his work Become Ocean.  In such pieces as this he has been inspired by his deep love of nature.  He writes of Dark Waves:
"This music should evoke a vast, rolling sea of sound. All entrances, exits and changes in individual parts occur 'beneath the surface of the waves,' with every sound emerging from and receding back into the overall texture."
To accomplish this, Adams makes use in this piece of recorded electronic music as well as live orchestral instruments to evoke in the listener's mind an aural image of ocean waves.
"Together, the orchestra and the electronics evoke a vast rolling sea. Waves of Perfect Fifths rise and fall, in tempo relationships of 3, 5, and 7. At the central moment, these waves crest together in a tsunami of sound encompassing all 12 chromatic tones and the full range of the orchestra."
I had heard earlier this month the Chicago Symphony perform Chausson's Poème de l' amour et de la mer and Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, so I had an opportunity to compare the manner in which three very different composers rendered in music alternate images of the sea.

After only a brief pause (there was no intermission), the program concluded with Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre (1852-1856) featuring guest artists Heidi Melton, soprano, Simon O'Neill, tenor, and John Relyea, bass.  Although Die Walküre is traditionally presented as the second installment of Der Ring des Nibelungen, it's important to remember that Wagner did not see the larger work as a tetralogy.  Instead he looked back to the structure of classic Greek theater in which three tragedies are preceded by a prelude.  Thus Die Walküre would actually have been viewed by Wagner as the first opera of a trilogy.  In composing the individual operas, Wagner actually worked backwards beginning with Götterdämmerung and ending with Das Rheingold.

What's most striking to twenty-first century listeners in the plot of Die Walküre is Wagner's use of incest as a plot device.  But it is precisely the complicity between brother (Siegmund) and sister (Sieglinde) that provides a nexus of mythic dimension that leads to the appearance of Siegfried, the doomed hero of the larger epic.  That much is made explicit when Siegmund sings: "Wife and sister you will be to your brother. So let the Volsung blood flourish!"  Here then in the first act are already laid the seeds of tragedy that will work through the remaining two operas and culminate in the destruction of Valhalla at the conclusion of Götterdämmerung.

The orchestra played much better on Thursday evening than I can remember having heard in a long while, certainly better than on last month's Prokofiev program.  This was a powerful performance with exceptional singing by all three vocalists that brought vividly to life the world of Wagner's Ring.  Perhaps Jaap van Zweden is the music director who's needed to turn about the ensemble's fortunes.  The Philharmonic was a great orchestra once and could be so again under the right leadership.  As heralded in an article on WQXR's blog, the ensemble's new season is quite innovative and contains a significant amount of new music, including works by Louis Andriessen.

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