Soaring Wagner, Savage Stravinsky

United StatesUnited States  Wagner, Stravinsky: Thomson Smillie (guest speaker), Amy Yekel (soprano), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio (USA), 20.04.2013 (TW)

Richard Wagner: “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde (1859); “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre (1869); Brϋnnhilde’s Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung (1869)
Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre Du Printemps (1913)

For its season finale at Umstattdt Hall, the Canton Symphony Orchestra enlisted Thomson Smillie, the acclaimed opera producer, stage director and lecturer, as guest speaker. His observations before and during the first half of the program, consisting of three selections from Wagner operas, were delightfully astute and witty, and it’s difficult to imagine a more excited champion of Wagner’s impactful genius.

In retrospect, Smillie’s directive to the audience on how to best embrace the “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, and Brünnhilde’s Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), seems somewhat curious if not counterintuitive. Smillie posited that the dramatic thrust cannot be wholly appreciated via the inadequate (and perhaps even silly) words in the libretto, but rather through the cascading orchestral surges he compared to musical orgasms. While we hear the singer with our ears and see her with our eyes, he explained further, we must listen to the orchestra with our hearts to experience what words on their own could never impart.

Here, however, any libretto shortcomings in communicating the emotional scope of Wagner’s grief-stricken heroines were utterly erased by the breathtaking performances of guest soprano and Canton native Amy Yekel. Yes, under the inspiring baton of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann, the orchestra was as magnificent as ever in delivering Wagner’s many polyphonic marvels (including the iconic, thunderous “Ride of the Valkyries”). But Yekel’s partnership, performing two of Wagner’s most searing visions of love consummated through death, was a phenomenon in itself.

With sustained muscularity and tonal sensuality, her singing was a thrilling embodiment of all the agony and ecstasy that engulfs the characters of Isolde (cradling the lifeless body of Tristan) and Brünnhilde (leaping with steely resolve on to Siegfried’s funeral pyre). Even as I could see the text translation projected high above the stage, I was more transfixed by “reading” the story on Yekel’s intensely expressive face. The powerful, warm sonority of her voice (with no microphone amplification) was of world-class quality and an equal match to the towering drama emanating from the noticeably augmented orchestra (which included four Wagner tubas).

One-hundred years after its 1913 riot-inciting Paris premiere, Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre Du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) remains a bedeviling concoction that can still elicit fear and loathing from lovers of more traditional orchestral music. For in this seminal work of 20th-century Modernism, harmony and melody all but disappear into an eerie mélange of dissonant instrumental textures and quickly changing, throbbing rhythmic themes wherein the percussion section reigns supreme.

That said, the orchestra navigated the work with a kind of preternatural intensity, as if caught up in a shamanistic conjuring of primal spirits. The performance was a robust reminder of the panache and spirit of daring that makes this orchestra so mesmerizing.


Tom Wachunas