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KC STAR CLASSICAL BEAT: KC Symphony takes on a user-friendly adaptation of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle

BY PATRICK NEAS | Special to The Star | May 24, 2018 06:34 PM

Gioachino Rossini once famously wrote: “Monsieur Wagner has good moments, but awful quarters of an hour.”

For those who agree with Rossini’s quip, the Kansas City Symphony and guest conductor Johannes Debus will take you on a Rhine journey June 1-3 that hits all the high points of Wagner’s Ring Cycle while avoiding what some consider the longueurs. Also on the program is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” with pianist Martin Helmchen as soloist.

In an era that embraces mythic storytelling, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” to “Star Wars” to the current Avengers movies, Wagner’s epic operas seem to be more appreciated than ever. The Ring, a story of elves, gods, dragons and a cursed ring, draws on many of the same Germanic sources as Tolkien’s work and seems especially to resonate with contemporary audiences.

But still, the complete 13-hour, four-opera Ring Cycle is a daunting undertaking for musicians and audiences alike. Almost since the operas were first performed at Bayreuth, Germany, arrangers have tried to make the Ring more user-friendly by excerpting juicy highlights, sometimes in a hasty, awkward manner. English music critic Donald Tovey referred to some such efforts as “the bleeding chunks of butcher’s meat chopped from Wagner’s operas.”

Debus will conduct Alan Gilbert’s recent arrangement, which, Symphony musical director Michael Stern says, preserves the integrity of Wagner’s operas.

“Gilbert actually makes a very coherent narrative out of the music, even though you don’t have the singing,” he said. “It’s not quite the opera, you don’t have words or stage action, but you do have a linear progression of the story.” 

Pianist Martin Helmchen will join the Kansas City Symphony as soloist for the concerts June 1-3.

Wagner didn’t think very highly of any composers other than himself, but he was a self-proclaimed devotee of Beethoven. And Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto is one of the few works with the oomph to stand up to Wagner’s ravishing music.

“It’s epic Beethoven,” Stern said. “It’s nothing like the Ring Cycle, but it seemed like a very nice pairing. Plus Martin Helmchen has never been with us. So we’re delighted to have three debuts on this concert: Alan Gilbert’s synthesis of the Ring, the conductor and the soloist. It’s a triple win for everybody.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K25fZRwbeGM

8 p.m. June 1 and 2 and 2 p.m. June 3. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$95. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.

Read the full article here.