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Lord of the Ring

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/26/2016 -  
Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (excerpts)
Christine Goerke (soprano), Stefan Vinke (tenor)
The MET Orchestra, James Levine (conductor)

C. Goerke (© Arielle Doneson)

“Luke Skywalker: I am not afraid.
Yoda: You will be. You will be!”
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Since this evening presented probably the last MET Orchestra concert conducted by James Levine (he has already cancelled all three appearances for next season), it might be germane to remember what these events were conceived for and designed to accomplish. The original idea was for this fine instrumental ensemble to perform nights wherein they would showcase their talents sans opera singers stealing the spotlight. However, over time the Met management could not resist promoting their superstars by having them front the band at Carnegie Hall to sold-out audiences. Slowly opera became the focus rather than the pure orchestral repertoire. Thus it is now de rigueur for the audience to expect a taste of what is available just up the street on a regular basis. At least the orchestra members’ parents can now see their progeny as well as hear them.

Reports of Mr. Levine’s sudden incompetence have been greatly exaggerated. One could argue that hearing conceivably the most deeply affecting music in all of the literature conducted by its greatest living exponent would be extremely memorable. Since there are few choruses in the tetralogy, let us examine the three remaining combinations individually.

The Purely Orchestral
Any conductor worth his salt can lead an ensemble with a competent brass section and produce a passable “Ride of the Valkyries”, but Levine learned from George Szell in Cleveland that the real secrets to the piece are contained in the swirling passages for the strings – a manoeuver that made the Hungarian master’s recordings nonpareil. Similarly Levine’s “Rainbow bridge” essay has always been a revelation, as he masterfully weaves the media of triumphal march and bone-shattering dirge into the same music. Sadly, neither of these first two excerpts was anything but quotidian and some of us in the otherwise overly enthusiastic audience were beginning to have concerns.

However, the ship was righted quickly, so that by the time we all arrived at the last purely instrumental except, we were in high cotton. “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March” was magnificent, redolent of Bayreuth, horrifying and edifying by turns. The Levine we so ardently wished for was back!

Accompanied Solo Singer
There was only one excerpt in this genre but it was spectacular. Christine Goerke was in total command during the “Immolation Scene” and had no trouble being heard over the huge orchestra (when you bring six harps to a concert, you are being extremely serious). She was fluid and never seemed to miss a note, a Brünnhilde superior even to her own death. This was the highlight of the evening.

There is a reason why the Bayreuth orchestra is hidden beneath the stage and Stefan Vinke highlighted it from his first notes in the “love duet” from Siegfried. He was almost inaudible against the background of such a large ensemble and, at least in this first duet, was clearly overmatched by his astoundingly competent girlfriend. Here we were also introduced to the Siegfried-Idyll, gloriously and tenderly crafted by maestro and orchestral undercurrent.

The final “bleeding chunk” of note was “Dawn, Duet and Rhine Journey” with unfortunately but fittingly equipped with the concert ending that leaves out the final motif that so efficiently and terrifyingly ushers in the hero’s death. But this was a concert performance and a wonderful one, in fact this evening got better the later it became.

Only Mr. Levine knows what is really on his mind and how his health will affect future decisions. For now, however, gentle reader may be buoyed by such a fine performance. The first rule of New York music is never to count James Levine out.

Fred Kirshnit



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