A frequent ISO guest brings along his orchestral survey of the Ring Cycle, and Watts plays Mozart

With a substantial arrangement of "Der Ring des Nibelungen" on a program conducted by the
Much-admired guest conductor brought his Wagner along.
conductor who made it, something to balance all that powerful Wagner needed to be chosen.

Jun Märkl presides over that achieved balance this weekend in two Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts, the second of which starts today at 7 p.m. The foreboding woven into a masterpiece that is technically a comedy made for a substantial start to Friday's Hilbert Circle Theatre concert, as Märkl and the ISO opened with the Overture to "Don Giovanni."

The vigor of those first commanding chords was a bit smudged, though the vigor remained as the texture fortunately cleared up. A charismatic bad actor gets his comeuppance in the opera; in this program, the moral import of such music is confirmed by Wagner's interpretation of Germanized Norse mythology in his great operatic tetralogy.

The program's first half is completed by the return appearance of a distinguished guest pianist, further helping to indicate that Mozart's presence on the program could not be taken for mere prelude. Andre Watts impressed his personality upon the Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, but not through any kind of distortion. Using the score but clearly familiar with everything on the page and what he wanted to do with it, Watts kept the attention fully engaged. He even made the minuet interruption in the finale work at quite a slow tempo. It seemed excessive, but the rapport with the accompaniment was air-tight, and we were invited to reflect on the composer's risk-taking more than the performers'.

Andre Watts shone in Mozart's earliest major piano concerto.
This is the earliest of Mozart's piano concertos still to be in the mainstream; it's also the longest. To have an old master at the keyboard offering his interpretation is thus fully appropriate. Mozart's short life belies the maturity he was able to show at a stage when most creative artists are still developing. Thus, it was striking how well Watts played the second-movement Andantino, almost as a portrait of an old man looking back on life. The autumnal quality not only suited the season — October having taken on characteristics we tend to associate more with dreaded November — but also provided fresh insights into the breadth of Mozart's lyrical expressiveness.

Watts' digging into the cadenzas in the second and third movements put the finishing touches on a colorful performance. His trills have always been a marvelous aspect of his technique — I remember how full of character they were at the end of the second movement of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto here two years ago. This time, they were exciting right after that minuet episode in the finale, and also as a capstone upon the weighty second-movement cadenza.

So, impressiveness before intermission served to whet the appetite for the conductor's voiceless vision of the Ring. The composer himself reluctantly conducted excerpts in the concert hall, always wanting his music to be known at a time long before recording and when there were fewer concerts than today. Märkl's arrangement puts aside greatest-hits excerpting the tetralogy's best music; the 45-minute arrangement is reverent about the progress of the drama as expressed instrumentally. Some will miss "The Ride of the Valkyries," perhaps, and of course vocal highlights like Sieglinde's "Du bist der Lenz" and Siegfried's "Nothung, Nothung, neidliches Schwert" were wisely omitted.

With the ISO expanded so that the stage had to be extended, Wagner's scoring was intact throughout, without idiomatic links newly composed to smooth things over. There was a patience about the integrity Märkl has preserved that was immediately evident in the prolonged depiction of the Rhine waters gradually illuminated by dawn breaking far above. That's how the whole business gets under way in the original, and anyone familiar with it could feel right at home. The anvil-pounding of the Nibelungs slaving away under the harsh regime of Alberich stood out, and the feature that drives the action — the gnome's curse on the ring of the title — makes its mark.

"Die Walküre," the most psychologically complex of the four operas, was fairly represented without onstage characters, and the emergence of Siegfried in the opera named for him climaxes in the final opera's spectacular Rhine Journey and the circumstances that lead to the hero's death and funeral. Loaded as it is with the deliverance of all the resolution promised by the first three operas, "Die Götterdämmerung" fulfills the demise of the gods' realm reflected in its title as Valhalla is consumed by the fire that Brünnhilde's immolation has fanned.

All this is conceived of as a unit and works as such. Wagner's thoroughgoing use of leitmotiven  
means that audiences unfamiliar with the staged original are aware, thanks to the arranger-conductor's scrupulous work, of the music's cohesiveness because of the reappearance of the tetralogy's most significant short melodies as part of the tapestry into which they are woven.

It was interesting that the conflagration that consumes Valhalla was less moving to me Friday than I remembered it being the one time I saw the Ring (Seattle, 1976). This had little to do with the ISO's performance, I think, but more because the stage picture of the great structure's ruin arouses mixed feelings. Without it, you can concentrate on what "Der Ring des Nibelungen" really means: the loss that the music depicts becomes less important than the peace that finally succeeds all the hatred, jealousy, and greed the drama has engendered and portrayed so thoroughly.

The music overlays the drama, as Wagner always intended, and the heroine's sacrifice suggests that a new order privileging love will emerge. To have that abstractly presented by Wagner's huge orchestra frees the listener from the drama and puts him or her on a new plane where it is not as important to be moved as to arrive at a new understanding. Kudos to Märkl for bringing that understanding to Indianapolis, and drawing from the ISO such a fine realization of it.


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