Wagner at Carnegie Hall

Music-making of a very high calibre took place at New York’s Carnegie Hall on the evening of May 26, 2016, when James Levine closed out a three-concert series by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with selections from Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Wagner at Carnegie Hall

Puffles and Honey were there to see it! Well, it was only selections… Wagner’s epic operatic tetralogy tells a tale of gods and men in music of tremendous power, tenderness, and exquisite colour. Fifteen hours of it is good, two hours is even better!

Wagner at Carnegie Hall

The concert brought together Christine Goerke, arguably the finest Wagnerian soprano in the world, tenor Stefan Vinke, in his first Met appearance after wowing Bayreuth with his Siegfried, and James Levine, one of the great Wagnerians, possibly for his valedictory contact with the Ring Cycle. It was in 1994 when James Levine, always on the alert for promising singers, brought the soprano Christine Goerke into the Metropolitan Opera’s young artist development program. When she had her breakthrough at the house a decade later, singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Levine was conducting.

Tenor Stefan Vinke, soprano Christine Goerke and conductor James Levine with the Met Orchestra
Tenor Stefan Vinke, soprano Christine Goerke and conductor James Levine with the Met Orchestra

Each of the operas was touched upon. There were four purely orchestral highlights, opening with a majestic Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold (complete with six harps on stage and clarinets instead of Rhinemaidens), the final chord on a whopping Carnegie-worthy crescendo. The Ride of the Valkyries was practically visible, the strings whipping through the air, the galloping trombones rousing, the piccolo solo leading perfectly into the big restatement of the Ride on the impeccably tuned horns, the entire five minutes working its way into true mania. In the program’s second half, the orchestra gave us the river’s flowing, surging and ebbing thrillingly in the Rhine Journey, and Siegfried’s Funeral March, taken at an utterly funereal pace, managed both grandeur and solemnity, with the grumbling bass giving way to the gleam of the Sword motif, a beacon of heroism amidst the laden grief.

Christine Goerke and Stefan Vinke both delivered some epic singing. The first half of the program ended with Brünnhilde’s awakening and the final duet from Siegfried. Christine Goerke’s voice rang out through the hall, rich, grand and perfectly focused. She expressed amazement after her awakening, then outrage and eventually love for Siegfried, delineating each change with shading and attention to the text, all the while singing with unspoiled intonation and huge top notes. Levine’s enthusiasm got out of hand at times. During the transformative love duet that concludes Siegfried, he encouraged the orchestra to let loose with lush, shimmering sound and enveloping fortissimos. Even Christine Goerke, with her powerhouse voice, was sometimes covered, as was her partner. Stefan Vinke is a true Heldentenor: in all of the vocal numbers, his voice was loud and clear, and impressive in the daunting scenes.

Tenor Stefan Vinke, soprano Christine Goerke and conductor James Levine with the Met Orchestra
Tenor Stefan Vinke, soprano Christine Goerke and conductor James Levine with the Met Orchestra

At the interval, many were wondering if they would ever hear such an ideal performance again, but the Prologue duet from Götterdämmerung, which lays many a tenor low, was again a great display of singing from both soloists, the couple enjoying one another’s enthusiasm. Then Stefan Vinke intoned Siegfried’s dying words sensitively, and that led into the Funeral March, which led seamlessly into the Immolation Scene. Again Christine Goerke rose to the occasion tirelessly, singing with warmth, nobility and majesty. The final musical conflagration was met with wild enthusiasm, again bringing the audience to a standing ovation that lasted for a quarter of an hour.

Nobody at Carnegie Hall could recall a Wagner concert so gigantic, so thrilling, or so special. Special, particularly because of James Levine’s presence on the podium, still using a motorized wheelchair, but leading with full force, temperament and accuracy in what might just be his valedictory contact with the Ring Cycle.

Conductor James Levine with the Met Orchestra
Conductor James Levine with the Met Orchestra
Conductor James Levine
Conductor James Levine

2016 marked the 125th Anniversary of Carnegie Hall.

Designed by architect William Burnet Tuthill and built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1891, it is one of the most prestigious venues in the world for both classical music and popular music. William Tuthill’s design reflects Gilded Age architectural tastes and engineering. Since the Hall was built shortly before the advent of structural steel construction, its walls are made of fairly heavy brick and masonry, to carry the full load of the structure without the lighter support that a steel framework soon made possible. The Italian Renaissance design of the exterior reflects the eclectic architectural tastes of the period, which look to European models of earlier centuries for inspiration.

Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall

William Tuthill was an amateur cellist and studied European concert halls famous for their acoustics. He consulted with architect Dankmar Adler, of the Chicago firm Adler and Sullivan, a noted acoustical authority, who had designed the Auditorium Building in Chicago. Drawing on his findings (and in some cases his own intuition), Tuthill eliminated common theatrical features like heavy curtains, frescoed walls and chandeliers that could impair good sound distribution. Carnegie Hall’s smooth interior, elliptical shape, slightly extended stage, and domed ceiling help project soft and loud tones alike to any location in the hall with equal clarity and richness.

Carnegie Hall Stern Auditorium
Carnegie Hall Stern Auditorium

The Music Hall opened with a five-day music festival beginning on May 5, 1891. The guest of honour was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who conducted his Marche Solennelle on Opening Night and his Piano Concerto No. 1 several days later. In the time since, the famed concert hall has hosted more than 46,000 events.

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