Brian Wise covers the classical music business for WQXR, including aspects of performance, technology, philanthropy and institutional trends. He produces the Café Concerts series and the podcast/show Conducting Business. He manages the station's homepage and makes sure what you hear on air is what you see online. Follow him on Twitter at @Briancwise.
Vienna Philharmonic to Bring Maazel’s 70-Minute 'Ring' to Carnegie Hall
Thursday, March 01, 2012 - 12:04 PM
Plenty of conductors lead concert programs featuring the standard orchestral excerpts from Wagner's Ring Cycle but Lorin Maazel went a good deal further with his symphonic synthesis “The Ring Without Words.”
Maazel assembled a 70-minute distillation of Wagner's four-opera, 17-hour cycle at the request of Telarc Records, which recorded it in 1987 with the conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic. It has since taken on a life of its own, and Maazel has performed it in New York with the Pittsburgh Symphony (in 1990) and the New York Philharmonic (during his days as music director, in 2000 and 2008). He’ll conduct it again on Saturday at 8 pm with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, which WQXR will broadcast live. (The program also features Mozart's Symphony No. 40.)
In his notes for the recording, Maazel expressed the hope that his labors might “bring some of the magic of this monumental work a mite closer…to a new audience of music-sensitive people.” Certainly, removing the vocal parts from Wagner is asking for a fight and some listeners have taken issue with Maazel’s “cut and paste” approach. Still, the former New York Times classical music critic Donal Henahan took a less purist view in 1990, arguing that “there is good musical logic for preferring such a treatment over the ill-assorted chunks of Wagner that make up most orchestral programs.”
“The Ring Without Words” is also a fantastic playground for a virtuoso orchestra, and this is where the Vienna Philharmonic comes into the picture. This group has a 170-year heritage and an intimate association with some of classical music's most revered repertoire. Tradition is serious business in the orchestra. It has one of the world's most glorious musical homes -- the gilded Musikverein in the Austrian capital. The orchestra takes no chances with its distinctively warm sound, going so far as to have extra violins hanging on some stands, just in case a string breaks.
The self-governing ensemble's supposed stubbornness in maintaining an unbroken link with its history has also focused attention on its hiring policies over the years. In 1997, after international protests and negative media coverage, the orchestra ended its policy of excluding women from its ranks. The orchestra’s critics and its supporters continue to debate whether equality has since been achieved quickly enough, a complex issue that can’t be given due justice in this space. (For those keeping score, of 130 members of the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra says there are currently eight women, six of whom are permanent members, and two of whom are in a probationary hiring period.)
If one thing is for certain, Vienna continues to promote its brand around the globe, touring this season on four continents (plus a summer cruise in the Baltic Sea), and broadcasting its famous New Year's Concert in over 70 countries. This week, Sony announced that the concert’s recording has sold over 150,000 copies, going double platinum in Austria and hitting the pop charts in France. Not too many other orchestras can enjoy such claims.
Watch an excerpt from "The Ring Without Words" and tell us what you think in the comments below: