One opera composer speaks of another: “Wagner,” said Rossini, “has lovely moments, but awful quarters of an hour.”
What either of these men would have thought of Henk de Vlieger’s voice-free, listeners’-digest version of Wagner’s four-opera “Ring” cycle, played by the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall Thursday morning, is anyone’s guess.
Rossini, a good Italian for whom the voice was the thing, would surely have been baffled by it — it’s like watching TV with the sound off, he might have said — whereas in Wagner’s operas the orchestra tells much of the story. Wagner would at least have understood the concept and might even have approved of De Vlieger’s work, especially if there was any money in it. (Wagner was always broke.)
Edo de Waart conducted the premiere of De Vlieger’s “The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure” in the Netherlands in 1991, and he programmed it here twice, in 1994 and in 2004. Mark Wigglesworth led the orchestra in a passionate, sonorous account of the work Thursday morning.
Truncating music in this manner, boiling 16 hours down to 60 minutes and leaving out the voices, sets and costumes, is hard to defend aesthetically, but the result is hard to resist when, despite a few solo glitches, the music is played as well and as excitingly as it was on this occasion.
The familiar Mendelssohn Violin Concerto that took up the first half seemed genteel compared to Wagner’s earth-churning tale of gods and demons. Even so, the fact that Erin Keefe, the orchestra’s concertmaster, was the soloist added some weight to the performance. Keefe, 34, took the job here in 2011, stepping into the big shoes left by her predecessor Jorja Fleezanis.
In most accounts, Keefe has done well here in what is a complicated and demanding job. (Playing an occasional concerto is probably the least taxing of a concertmaster’s chores, though it’s the one that the public takes most note of.) A further complication: Keefe’s name is on the shortlist to replace the retiring Glenn Dicterow, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. She spent two weeks in Dicterow’s chair this season and made a good impression.
Keefe’s Mendelssohn made a good impression, too. With Wigglesworth’s close collaboration, she proved to be a poised, thoughtful soloist with a definite point of view.
This was anything but the old-style Romantic reading, with lots of sobbing and sighing, elastic rhythm and heavy vibrato. The emotional temperature was cooler and less expansive, leaning more on Mendelssohn’s classical roots than his yearnings toward Romanticism. Keefe’s slender, silvery tone, effortless technique and immaculate high notes surmounted all the hurdles of the outer movements and delivered the slow movement with a sweet, direct songfulness.
It’s clear: New York’s gain would be Minnesota’s loss.
Michael Anthony writes about music.