Music Ahead: Heroes, Dragons, and a Goddess of the Violin

After a wonderful residency in Hibbing, our Minnesota Orchestra is back in town, and we are set to have an incredible concert this week.  Let me tell you about why I’m excited to hear it.

To begin, a word about our esteemed soloist for the evening, Erin Keefe.  I’ve never actually met her, but I owe her a supreme word of gratitude.

Back in 2012, I was one of the singers who volunteered to sing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the locked-out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.  I was thrilled to take part—for a variety of entirely personal reasons, I love performing the 9th and seldom pass up a chance to do so.

But that year was different.  Those performances coincided with the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

The whole country looked on in horror at the event, but for me there was a personal connection: my cousin teaches violin there.   No one in my family was hurt, or even directly involved in the events of that terrible day, but you may well imagine the emotions that were washing over me.   You may also imagine how hard it was, given all that had happened, to steel myself to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

As it happened, the concert program also included Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1043.  For this piece, Erin was one of the soloists, and she was joined onstage by our beloved concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis. The chatter from the musicians was that it was a spectacular performance, and rather than hang out in the Green Room, I slipped backstage to listen from the wings.

And once the music started, I completely fell apart.

Bach, like Mozart, is a master of expressing profound emotions without the theatrics of, say, Verdi’s Requiem.  I’m not saying one approach is “better” than the other, but at that moment, when I was already feeling raw, Bach’s quieter approach was exactly what I needed.  That slow movement in particular was so eloquent, so indescribably moving … that it would be foolish for me to try expressing it in mere words.  Neither Erin or Jorja had any idea I was there, a few feet away, but they gave to me a precious gift of healing and hope.  And in particular, they gave me an emotional re-set that I absolutely needed—it allowed me to perform a few minutes later.

Oh, I was still a mess onstage as the Orchestra played the slow movement of Beethoven’s 9th, but that earlier performance helped me get through the evening so I, too, could sing with joy.

But there’s more.  A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to watch Erin’s performance from the stage as a fellow performer.  As I noted in an earlier blog posting, the Minnesota Chorale performed with the Orchestra at the Eric Whitacre concert, and I was part of the fun.  One of those telling moments happened half-way through the concert, when the Orchestra took up Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa.  As I mentioned at the time, Erin played the opening as if the entire fate of humanity was riding on her performance.  There was such a powerful conviction behind her playing—and when added to her intense musicality that opening theme absolutely took flight.

If her exceptional artistry can make such a small moment come to life, I can only imagine how it will serve in one of the most beloved concertos in the entire repertoire.

But Erin isn’t the only person to watch on stage.  Let’s not forget about Mark Wigglesworth. Maestro Wigglesworth has already led the Orchestra once this season, and that was a memorable performance that gave me hope that our Orchestra could recover from the disastrous lockout and emerge just as strong as before.

Don’t get me wrong, the Orchestra has given strong concerts since the lockout ended.  But as I have discussed before, the ensemble hadn’t been playing together, and everyone was still adjusting to the new acoustics of the refurbished Orchestra Hall.  The ensemble is still very much in recovery mode.

But this concert was astonishing.  And particularly, the Shostakovich 10 was astonishing.  That whirlwind of a symphony pulled out all the stops, and demanded virtuosity from every player.  And the players gave it everything they had.  Wowza.

To give you a sense of how phenomenal that experience was, let me provide an anecdote.  As the concert let out, my wife and I headed across the street to the restaurant Masa for our usual dessert and debrief.  While there, I ran into one of the substitute musicians who was filling in that week.   When I asked her thoughts about the performance, she said, “This was just so absolutely perfect.  It was an amazing work led by just an amazing conductor… it was wonderful.”

(As an aside, everyone should go over to Masa for dessert.  Seriously, the churros alone are worth a special trip to downtown Minneapolis at any time during the day.  I’ve convinced several people to give them a try, and uniformly I’ve gotten enthusiastic thanks for making the introduction.  And I don’t mean a “polite-smile” kind of thank-you, I mean the kind where the person clasps me with both hands, looks me in the eye and says, “Oh my God. Thank you for making me try the churros.  Amazing.  Thank you… thank you.”)

And I have to say, I loved working with Mark Wigglesworth myself.  Just over two years ago in 2012, he led the combined forces of the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, and that was a fantastic experience for me. That said, it’s an odd beast to conduct.  It is a brilliant example of French impressionism, and as such there is a danger of being carried away by the feel of the piece and being too fluid or impressionistic in your conducting.  It is never a good thing when the musicians are forced to guess, for example, which part of that gorgeously liquid S-curve that you danced across the air was supposed indicate the cut-off.

That was not the case with Wigglesworth; he was precise and clear without ever feeling fussy or heavy.  It was his clear sense of structure that, perhaps paradoxically, allowed us to be really free in our performance. Again, I can’t wait to see what he does with this music.

* * *

The music itself will be fascinating, too.  For one, the pairing of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and music from Wagner’s Ring has more than piqued my curiosity.

In a way, this concert provides bookends of the entire Romantic movement. Sure, there was Romantic music before Mendelssohn , and certainly Romantic-style music continued after Wagner.  But this concert pairs a work from when Romanticism emerged from the classical tradition with one that was composed when Romanticism firmly began moving into the new directions of the 20th century.

But more than that, one could make a fair case that in some ways, Wagner’s music and entire musical ethos were a direct reaction against Mendelssohn.  Part of this was personal.  In 1836, the 23-year-old Wagner sent Mendelssohn—four years older but already a musical titan—a copy of his C major Symphony. Mendelssohn never replied.  Mendelssohn was also famously disdainful of Wagner’s opera, The Flying Dutchman.  Apparently Wagner never forgave these slights.

But much of Wagner’s antipathy towards Mendelssohn’s music was driven by aesthetic differences, too.  Wagner felt that music should be truly ambitious… to not just be innovative but to shatter convention.  Wagner also had little use for the tightly restrained forms favored by Mendelssohn, advocating a new structural approach music.  In many ways these artistic differences were the sparks that ignited the so-called “War of the Romantics” that divided much of the musical world in the late 19th century.

But that’s a lot of music theory.  What will the music sound like?

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is so famous that it hardly needs an introduction from me.  Which is a good thing, in that I’ve never actually hear the piece performed.

Yes, I know.  I’m an artistic philistine.

The thing is, as I’ve mentioned many times in my blog, I’m a singer first and foremost, and my usual frame of reference is in vocal works.  I also was for many years a pianist and oboist… but strings are still somewhat of a mystery to me.  I “get” piano concertos on a much more instinctual level than I ever will understand violin concertos.

But that’s the thrill of going to a live concert.  And I have to say, that given the chance to read up on it or to check out one of the many recordings of it, I deliberately put aside my research and decided to go in blind, so to speak.  I’ve unplugged completely, and I’m looking forward to letting a work roll over me for the first time.  It is, for me, a rare chance.  So, I greatly look forward to putting myself in Erin’s capable hands, and letting her lead me on a journey of discovery.

But since I offer no words of my own about the piece, let me provide a wonderful quote by legendary violinist Joseph Joachim that should explain why I’m so excited to hear it:  “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.”

That’s my kind of music.

Now Wagner’s Ring is something else entirely, and there I’m on much firmer ground. Like many out there, I think the best way to describe my feelings about Wagner is to call it a love-hate relationship.  On the one hand, it’s hard to reconcile my negative feelings about Wagner as a person with my feelings about his works of art.  The man treated his friends worse than most people treat their enemies.  He was also a vehement anti-Semite, and much, much  more.

And that makes it… hard.  Hard to give him a chance, hard to untangle complex feelings.

Perhaps worse, the man’s work can often feel like… well, like work.  There is such profundity, such depth that sometimes we’re in danger of losing the plot.

But despite all that, the man has given us absolutely astonishing music.  The man was a genius.  He has an uncanny ear for creating mesmerizing harmonies and vivid characterizations that make his operas blaze with life.  There is a reason so many have been willing to put up with so much from him—his music is worth it.

But still, how do you bring this incredible experience to a concert hall, into a more easily digestible form? Many have tried, but there are few perfect options.  Wagner was so skilled, so seamless in his transitions that it’s hard to pull out excerpts into a concert suite. (Sir Donald Tovey memorably dismissed these efforts as serving “bleeding chunks of meat.”)

What is needed is a composer that is skilled enough to edit the material down, but to do so in a way that keeps the story and overall musical structure intact.

Someone like Henk de Vlieger.

This performance features de Vlieger’s concert arrangement of Wagner’s masterpiece, Der Ring des NibelungenThe Ring, in its original form, is a four-part opera lasting 14 hours; it chronicles the rise and fall of the gods of Valhalla, and by extension all of humankind.  De Vlieger includes the “greatest moments” of The Ring, but stitches them together as a series of tightly connected tone poems that lasts slightly over an hour.  De Vlieger has a keen sense of narrative pacing, giving Wagner’s tale of gods, giants, dragons and heroes all the narrative drive of an epic adventure movie.  Wagner has seldom seemed so cinematic.  More important, de Vlieger is greatly attuned to Wagner’s unique musical voice, and he allows the music to speak for itself.

Overall, this is a perfect introduction to the world of The Ring.

Let me provide a quick run-down of the piece.  For Das Rheingold, de Vlieger includes the opening scene in the depths of the River Rhine, and then covers the descent from the Valhalla to Nibelheim, and finally morphs into the Rainbow Bridge and Valhalla themes. For Die Walküre, Act One is eliminated altogether; Act Two is represented by a short slice from the Siegmund-Hunding sword fight that leads to the “Ride of the Valkyries.” This section ends with music from the opera’s finale, the “Magic Fire Music.”  The Siegfried section focuses on music from Act Two, particularly the death of the dragon Fafner, before continuing with Siegfried’s journey to Brünnhilde’s fire-enshrouded rock, and the valkyrie’s subsequent awakening.  Music from Götterdämmerung includes “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” the dramatic “Siegfried’s Funeral March” and “Brünnhilde’s Immolation.”

Obviously, reducing a 14-hour opera down to 60 minutes means that many favorite sections are going to be edited out.  And just as obviously, everyone will have different views on what should or should not make the cut.  One could point out that in his arrangement, de Vlieger emphasizes the spectacular elements of the story at the expense of the smaller, intimate moments.

Yes, but that misses the point.

What de Vlieger does is create a dramatic adventure story and a musical tour de force that will be gripping for the audience, and provide a sonic showstopper to “show off” the musical talents of our Minnesota Orchestra.

Moreover, this is a great concert that, to use a tired cliché, really does have something for everyone.  Whether you are drawn to the purity and delicacy of the early romantics, or to the dramatic thunderclaps of the later composers, you should find something to love in this concert.  Throw in a superb soloist, a great conductor, and musicians hungry to make great music again, this is a concert you cannot miss.

Get your tickets, if you haven’t already.  See you there!



7 thoughts on “Music Ahead: Heroes, Dragons, and a Goddess of the Violin

  1. One fun thing to listen for if you go… when you hear the slow movement of the Mendelssohn violin concerto and you’ll notice it sounds like music from “Jesus Christ: Superstar”. The song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is almost a direct quote from the Mendelssohn slow movement.


  2. Well done once again, Scott. These should be the program notes along with Manny’s comment. And yes, the churros at Masa are divine!


    • A church-full of people nearly fell off the pews listening to Veronika Eberle play it with the SPCO last Saturday night.


  3. What I appreciate most about listening to the Minnesota Orchestra perform a work of music that I have not heard before is that I get to hear how it’s supposed to sound, how the composer meant it to be played.


  4. 4 harps!! 8 horns!! Anvils!! I’m not sure how many musicians will be onstage this week, but the instrumentation for Richard Wagner’s “The Ring, An Orchestral Adventure” as compiled by Henk de Vlieger (1991) calls for a massive orchestra. It should be a spectacular performance!

    “The Ring” Instrumentation: 3 flutes, piccolo (1 flute also doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 8 horns (4 doubling tenor and bass Wagner tubas), 3 trumpets, bass trumpet, 3 trombones, contrabass trombone, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, field drum, tam-tam, anvils, 4 harps, and strings.


  5. Pingback: Mendelssohn, Wagner, and the Coming of Spring | Mask of the Flower Prince

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