Review: ASO defies tradition with disputed Mozart, Ring Cycle suite

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra harpists, from left, Julie Koenig, Ellen Foster, Juan Riveros, Elisabeth Remy Johnson (ASO principal harp) performed in "The Ring Without Words," which condenses roughly 15 hours of music into a 70-minute take arranged by Lorin Maazel.

Credit: Photo by Rand Lines

Credit: Photo by Rand Lines

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra harpists, from left, Julie Koenig, Ellen Foster, Juan Riveros, Elisabeth Remy Johnson (ASO principal harp) performed in "The Ring Without Words," which condenses roughly 15 hours of music into a 70-minute take arranged by Lorin Maazel.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra delivered a decidedly unorthodox concert on Thursday, June 6, with two pieces that each in their own way defied tradition.

The featured segment of the evening was a selection of highlights from Richard Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle, devoid of human voices. That alone was intriguing, but the opening work was a sinfonia that might have been written by Mozart and one that came with a rich and convoluted history. In both cases, the unusual was the soupe du jour. (The program also was presented on Saturday, June 8.)

The ASO added atmospheric lighting and a projection screen to announce the various sections of "The Ring Without Words."

Credit: Photo by Rand Lines

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Credit: Photo by Rand Lines

“The Ring Without Words” was an instrumental take on Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle and yielded mixed results. Arranged by American conductor and composer Lorin Maazel, the work condenses roughly 15 hours of music into a 70-minute highlight reel that still manages to feel like too much to swallow.

It was a smart bit of programming, given that there’s been a lot of buzz about the Atlanta Opera’s terrific new production of “Die Walküre” (the second of the four operas), which premiered in April. But the Ring Cycle demands theatricality. The ASO brought in some atmospheric lighting and a projection screen to announce the various sections, but the effect fell short of capturing the full grandeur of Wagner’s vision.

The musicians were enthusiastic throughout and delivered a bang up performance, but the music of the Ring Cycle is only a third of the puzzle. Absent the glorious staging and cerebral libretto, much of the sounds felt cavernous and lacking in definition.

That confusion is hardly ameliorated by relegating the vocal melodies to the orchestra. Such passages aren’t meant to stand on their own; they are dialogue set to music, and they vanished into the wider arrangement without the libretto to anchor them in the listener’s mind.

The result was an ambient morass of familiar sounds that occasionally coalesced into one of Wagner’s classic themes. Instrumental favorites such as “Ride of the Valkyries” and “Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla” emerged with the fiery zeal necessary to reach deep into the soul but only as high points in a stilted morass.

Percussionists offstage played nontraditional instruments, including car parts, during the Ring Cycle work.

Credit: Photo by Rand Lines

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Credit: Photo by Rand Lines

The “Mozart” piece was an even more beguiling matter. Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K. 297b (1778) has a storied and mysterious history, even as the actual music is a bit pedestrian.

In 1777, a plucky young Mozart was searching for steady musical work in Germany and Paris. A half year of searching yielded only sporadic success, but, in a 1778 letter to his father, Mozart mentions having composed a sinfonia concertante.

That is all that is known for certain about the work. A performance was planned but never materialized, and Mozart apparently left Paris without the score in tow. A piece purported to be the mysterious work appeared 100 years later in the private collection of Mozart historian Otto Jahn, and it was this work that the ASO performed.

Connections between the Berlin manuscript and Mozart’s work are tenuous at best. The handwriting isn’t a match, and Mozart’s original score called for a flute in the quartet rather than a clarinet. But most telling is the orchestration around the quartet, which is amateurish at best and fails to reflect the stylistic conventions and compositional depth that were integral to Mozart’s signature sound.

ASO principals Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, oboe; Jesse McCandless, clarinet; Ryan Little, horn; and Anthony Georgeson, bassoon were the featured soloists in the sinfonia that some believe was composed by Mozart. Music director Nathalie Stutzmann conducted.

Credit: Photo by Rand Lines

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Credit: Photo by Rand Lines

That disparity between quartet and orchestra worked to the detriment of the ASO’s performance. The quartet — here made up of Elizabeth Tiscione (oboe), Jesse McCandless (clarinet), Ryan Little (horn) and Anthony Georgeson (bassoon) — was engaged and lively with phrases that did at times echo the whimsical, arpeggiated playfulness of Mozart. The larger orchestra appeared stultified by comparison, with long, awkward phrases that seemed to hover with a sense of stiffened uncertainty rather than engaging in dialogue with the quartet.

The difference between the parts that are possibly Mozart versus those unlikely to be is no minor matter — they are two sides of a sprawling chasm. On one side was the quartet cheerfully bouncing its way through what sounded like the 1778 Paris equivalent of Dixieland jazz, while on the outer precipice the strings and brass meandered in a realm of doldrums and contrivances. Holding it all together was conductor Nathalie Stutzmann who, far from being her usual fiery self, was uncharacteristically subdued in her accentuation of the piece.

Thus it was an evening of musical oddities. Wagner afforded the players an opportunity to flaunt the passion in their playing even while the condensed work suffered as a whole. But it was the disputed Mozart work that left the greatest impact, albeit more as a curiosity than as a profound statement in its own right.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has always done an admirable job of delving into realms of obscurity often ignored by symphonies of its size, but it would do well not to pair such works on the same bill.

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Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.

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