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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Concert Review: From the Depths to the Heights

The Philharmonic is bringing Wagner back.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A couple of swells. Eric Owens (left) and Alan Gilbert at the Japan Society in 2008.
Photo by George Hirose for AlanGilbert.com
The New York Philharmonic tested its reputation as an opera orchestra on Thursday night, with the first concert of an ambitious program featuring most of the third act of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre, the most performed and best-loved episode in his mythological magnum opus Der Ring des Nibelungen. This concert was the first new program of 2016 under the baton of Alan Gilbert and marked Eric Owens' first New York appearance singing the role of Wotan.

With the orchestra augmented by nine members of the Music Academy of the West, this program opened with the music of Sibelius and Richard Strauss. En Saga is Sibelius' first great tone poem, a searching work that uses divided strings and powerful brass to depict a fairy tale drawn from Finnish mythology. The string players were particularly agile here, playing the unusual bowing instructions that created a shivering, slithering carpet woven from short bow-strokes. A lone cell phone nearly ruined this soft passage, but an alert usher managed to save the evening.

This was followed with three Strauss lieder. The first two, "Cäcilie" and "Ruhe meine seele" introduced Ms. Melton and her big instrument. She injected passion into the first and somber reflection into the second, meeting their challenges even if her pitch wasn't always exact. The last featured Mr. Owens. He sang the "Pilgers Morgenlied" with robust, dark tone tone a fitting set-up for the Wagner performance that was to follow.

Most bass-baritones who attempt the marathon role of Wotan take on the role in the middle of their careers, when their instrument can handle the vast range of the part and has the stamina to sustain a performance through Wagner's hour-plus acts. The role also requires a certain dramatic maturity and gravitas. Later in their career, some Wotans turn to the role of Alberich, the villain of the Ring, especially when their voices darken and lose some of their luster.

Mr. Owens is unusual in that he sung Alberich first, playing the character opposite Wotan in the Metropolitan Opera's last production of the Ring. Here, he sung the part with a pleasant, slightly dry tone. Present and accounted for: the blustering passages of the character's third act rages and the hushed regret of the difficult choice he faces. His heartbreak as he bade farewell to his daughter Brunnhilde and condemned her to endless slumber on a mountain surrounded by fire was present but not as intense as one might hear it in the opera house. Let's hope this is the start of a long exploration of this character.

Opposite him was soprano Heidi Melton, making her Philharmonic debut as Brunnhilde. She has a big, impressive voice that turns a little tight as it enters its upper range but is still supported by a full column of tone. Also impressive: she hit the key low notes in the score, given room to make them resonate by Mr. Gilbert. In the small company of Wagnerian dramatic sopranos, this is a name to watch.

With no Valkyrie girls and no giant moving stage set, it was up to Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic to convey the beauty and terrors of this famous act. They did so with a brisk and thunderous Ride of the Valkyries which segued neatly over the act's first two scenes and directly into the sad passage for clarinets that starts the long duet. When Wotan's Farewell arrived, they poured a flood of repressed emotion, revelling in the music's depiction of the shattered god's true feelings. The Magic Fire music lived up to its name, a bit brisk but magnificently played.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.