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Nashville Symphony plays beautiful music with a familiar ‘Ring’

guerrerosideThe music of German composer Richard Wagner and French composer Maurice Ravel would seem to go together like a mixture of sauerkraut and crème brûlée.

Wagner’s heavy Teutonic music dramas have little in common with Ravel’s elegantly refined, classically proportioned works. And never mind that most French composers of Ravel’s generation despised Wagner and his music.

Yet the program of Ravel and Wagner that Giancarlo Guerrero is conducting this weekend with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra seems to work remarkably well. It opens with Ravel’s one-movement Concerto in D major for Piano Left Hand, which pianist Louie Lortie played with real brio on Thursday night. Guerrero followed with The Ring Without Words, a 70-minute distillation of Richard Wagner’s monumental opera tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung. The success of the program no doubt has everything to do with the inherent theatricality of both works.

The story behind Ravel’s concerto is quite famous. Ravel composed it in 1929-30 for Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian pianist who had lost his right arm during World War I – Ravel and Wittgenstein, incidentally, served on opposing sides during the conflict. The concerto has a predominantly dark orchestral texture – which also makes it a good match for Wagner’s music. The piano part is extraordinary, since it seems to need a magician rather than a musician. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this concerto’s quicksilver passages and orgy of octaves were being played by a pianist with three hands.

lortieCertainly, the NSO couldn’t have found a better pianist for this concerto than Lortie, who happens to have both the best left and right hands in the business. He’s a superlative Ravel interpreter who has recorded all of this composer’s piano music – his recording Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, arguably the most difficult solo work in the piano repertoire, is breathtaking.

Not surprisingly, Lortie’s performance of the Ravel concerto was magnificent. He played virtuoso sections with power and theatrical drama, hitting widely spaced notes dead center with expert marksmanship. His playing in lyrical passages brought out all of the music’s misty impressionism. Guerrero and the NSO provided colorful and beautifully balanced accompaniment.

Like many die-hard Wagner fans, I get a bit queasy whenever I hear The Ring Without Words. Conductor Lorin Maazel created this Reader’s Digest version of Wagner’s four-opera magnum opus in 1987 as part of a recording project with the Berlin Philharmonic. It goes without saying that there is no way anyone could do justice to a 17-hour tetralogy in just 70 minutes.

There are jagged and jarring segues connecting many of the well-known themes. The famous proto-minimalist prelude – 136 bars of pure undulating E-flat major – reaches its climax and then, wham, we get tossed straight from the depths of the Rhine to the heights of Valhalla.  Subtleties and nuance of character that take an hour or more to develop in the opera are lost in a blur in The Ring Without Words.

That said, a blazing rendition of this Wagner-Maazel showpiece will always make a big impression. On Thursday night, Guerrero and the NSO played with unrelenting power and daredevil virtuosity. The brass in particular outdid itself, playing the famed “The Ride of the Valkyries” with enough force to seemingly blow out the back walls of the concert hall. “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” were played with sensuous lyricism.

Without props and characters onstage, it’s easy to get lost in a performance of The Ring Without Words. Non-Wagnerites might not know the music of Siegfried’s “Forest Murmurs” from Götterdämmerung’s “Immolation Scene.” Fortunately, this is not a problem this weekend, since the NSO is projecting scene titles above the stage. That way, we always know where we are in the action, even without a plus-size soprano singing.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony performs Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand (with pianist Louie Lortie) and Wagner-Maazel’s The Ring Without Words. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, March 29 and Saturday March 30 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $28 to $115. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.