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(Concert Review) TMC rocks Wagner


James Levine, conductor
TANGLEWOOD, Lenox, Mass.
July 16, 2005

Die Walkure, Act 1

Gotterdammerung, Act III

Chances are good that the best rock concert of the year took place at Tanglewood last night, as James Levine conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, along with an all-star cast of opera singers and the Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, in a program of excerpts from Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Rock concert?

If Wagner's bombastic silliness isn't rock 'n' roll -- or at least some form of prog-rock -- then what is?

In terms of sheer drama and dynamics, musical thrills and chills for their own sake, and relative stupidity of the lyrics and plot, Wagner's RING has to rank up at the top with rock landmarks like Pink Floyd's THE WALL or Rick Wakeman's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

There are probably some people who still listen to Wagner's work and take it totally seriously. That's fine. But what they're missing is the rollicking good time we had last night, along for the roller-coaster ride through Wagner's overwrought fusion of Greek and Norse mythology, the Bible, German folk culture, Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS, and a hefty dose of Monty Python.

Yes, of course, I'm aware that Wagner predated Tolkien by a half-century or more and Monty Python by an entire century. Yet it's impossible to hear Wagner today totally without reference to the prism of these iconic pop culture figures that undoubtedly borrowed from him (and spun him silly along the way), any more than one can ignore the fact that this music powered everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to the scene of a demented Robert Duvall in APOCALYPSE NOW.

This doesn't lessen the music's impact one whit, and in the hands of James Levine, the world's leading conductor of this music, and the able, enthusiastic fellow of the TMC Orchestra, a listener was certainly able to enjoy and appreciate the music for what it was, relatively unfiltered, over the course of the thrilling 2.5 hour concert.

It's too bad, actually, that Wagner is taken so seriously, because if any sort of "classical" music might appeal to youth whose ears are otherwise only tuned to rock music and its offshoots, it may well be this music. For sheer drama, almost nothing beats it -- so long as it's not force-fed as something that's "good for you," but instead, as Wagner presumably MUST have intended, merely as something entertaining. How else to interpret plot lines dumber than anything Hollywood could come up with, like man finds ring, ring is cursed, man gets rid of ring, or, man stumbles into house in woods, discovers his long lost twin sister, has sex with her, sister's husband kills man?

Obviously the product of a demented genius and the flowering of a culture already well on its way towards its own self-destruction through poisonous depravity reflected in this music and story.

Yet, still, the music soared, and as much as we could hear it with the knowledge that this was the sort of demented folk-culture that would fuel a genocide, we could also enjoy it on its own terms as overblown, overwrought passion in the same way we enjoy Bruce Springsteen's more sentimental portrayals of suburban life.

Indeed, Wagner's world in THE RING comes as complete with cliches as Springsteen's -- for every one of the latter's references to cars, streets, fire, and night, Wagner offered us his versions: woods, wolves, hunting, blood, water, swords, loyalty, betrayal.

Nor would it be lost on any young listener that so much movie music has been inspired by if not downright copied from Wagner. John Williams, for one, has apparently spent some time listening to Wagner, at least as much as Copland, and in some of the horn blasts one heard foreshadowing of the alien trumpeting in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

Whie the cultural elite bemoan the decline of music education, they do nothing to invite schoolchildren to enjoy the sheer pleasure of this monumentally exciting and silly piece of music. One can only imagine the howls of the politically correct crowd that would meet any attempt to feed a diet of Wagner to schoolchildren. But with a vital, vibrant director like James Levine, with a young orchestra like the TMC, and with superb singers like Deborah Voigt who could sing this tripe with straight faces and not crack up laughing, and still make it all musically worthwhile -- well, it's really a resource wasted on the elderly, frankly.

In sum, this Wagner rocked.

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