Marathons & Promenades

Nights at the Opera: Nov. 2009

Operatically speaking, it is Autumn Marathon time with two performances of Richard Wagner’s complete Ring cycle being staged at the Staatsoper this month. (See Events p. 25). The Ring of the Nibelung with its four operas is probably the most written about operatic work ever. The available range of introductions to the Ring and commentated texts with translations is enough to fill several metres of shelf space before a selection of the almost endless studies are added. Given the scale and complexity of the work, this is hardly surprising, and considerable further scope arises from the many controversies surrounding Wagner himself.

I was once given a paperback volume called The Fast-forward MBA, which is a very valuable reference but can’t and doesn’t pretend to be a substitute for a few years’ solid graft at Harvard. In similar vein, no single volume can cover all aspects of the Ring. However, a more than adequate introduction can be found in Wagner’s Ring Turning the Sky Round by Fr. M. Owen Lee and published by Limelight Books, New York. The book is based on Owen Lee’s famous intermission talks at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  It takes about two hours to absorb the hundred or so pages of text.

Shifting up a gear to a set of commentated and translated texts of the four individual operas leads to a wide range of options, but the set by Rudolph Sabor, first published by Phaidon Press in London in 1997, has many attractions, including great clarity of presentation, notations of the motifs and succinct story summaries at the beginning of each scene. For deeper study I Saw the World End a study of Wagner’s Ring by Deryck Cooke, published by Clarendon Paperbacks at Oxford University Press, is very useful although sadly, it represents only half of the intended work as the author died before the second volume was written. The serious devotee will not bypass the timeless study The Perfect Wagnerite by George Bernard Shaw.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that I had done none of this preparation before I saw my first Ring opera or indeed before I sat, or rather, stood through the first full Ring I attended in 2001. Now, as then, the enjoyment and experience of the music are reason enough for being there. There will be a third performance of the Ring cycle this season in March 2010.

Perhaps Wagner’s epic tale of the lust for Gold and its powers – magical or not – and of all the consequences that result from it, has a new pertinence now as the world experiences another lemming-like rush to acquire the precious metal.

Even the most committed opera-goers find time for other musical events. For decades the series of promenade concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London (The Proms) have been consistently and increasingly popular. The Last Night at the Proms has become a global musical legend, principally because of its interactive character and the pervasive sense that great music and fun mix together very well. The promenade concerts are so-called because the parterre area is converted into a standing area where the audience can walk about, or promenade, during the performance. In reality the popularity of the concerts inhibits much in the way of movement and nothing in the way of enjoyment.

Vienna had a prom concert on Oct. 17 in the Wiener Konzerthaus, which was one of the most enthusiastically-received musical performances given in this city for quite some time. The concert was given by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, a 28-year-old genius with the energy of a nuclear power station, and who is so at one with his orchestra that they are like a one hundred or so peopled extension of himself. He encourages, lifts, calms, cajoles, talks to and laughs with his musicians with complete, confident control over not just sections but also  the individual instruments in his large orchestra. He was mesmeric to watch as he conducted the entire concert without a score in front of him.

The concert had three parts: the first consisted of three pieces by Latin American composers of the last century. These captured the different moods of their music, which is not all boisterous or brassy. These were presented with obvious pride by the young musicians and were well-liked by an appreciative capacity audience who could not but warm to the spirit, energy and enthusiasm of the very skilled musicians.

The second part was one of Tchaikovsky’s enormous canvasses of mid-19th century Russia. I have long felt that the greatest landscapes of that Russia have been given to us by Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy rather than by any painter. Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony affords a large orchestra to display its skills to the full. The first movement switches through four directions. The third is largely pizzicato and the final movement, allegro con fuoco, had the bows whizzing at lightning speeds. The enthusiastic appreciation was such that applause could not be withheld between the movements of the symphony. The whole was greeted by a standing ovation of such a rare intensity and emotion that it was some time before the roof settled back into place over the Great Hall.

The third part was the prom’s bit full of popular Viennese and Latin American music. It was only with great reluctance that the orchestra were allowed to leave well over an hour later than the scheduled end time. The young musicians left their mark in the official Guest Book as well. One wrote “the best weekend of my life.” Another wrote “To my Venezuelan girl, I love you more than Simon Bolivar.” And on that night Vienna loved the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and founder, the visionary Jose Antonio Abreu, too!

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