Pittsburgh Symphony offers up slices of Wagner's 'The Ring'

Pianist Stephen Hough
Pianist Stephen Hough
Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke
| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Richard Wagner's gargantuan “The Ring of the Nibelungen” is probably the origin of the familiar sentence, “It ain't over till the fat lady sings.” The cycle of four operas, spanning about 15 hours, ends with the 20-plus minute “Immolation Scene” for soprano with orchestra.

While “The Ring” is immensely popular with a substantial portion of opera fans, it contains too much great music to be limited to the opera house. Given Wagner's brilliant and rich orchestration, playing excerpts at symphony concerts has been popular since the operas were first performed in the late 19th century.

Donald Runnicles will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with Stephen Hough as piano soloist, at concerts on March 21 and 23 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is “Euphonic Blues” by Nancy Galbraith, Piano Concerto No. 1 by Felix Mendelssohn, and excerpts from “The Ring of the Nibelungen” by Richard Wagner.

The conductor is general music director of Deutsche Oper, Berlin, and was music director of San Francisco Opera from 1992-2009. He'll lead five excerpts, with no singers, to fill the concert's second half, including “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Forest Murmurs,” a particularly lovely change of pace from the intense drama, and the “Immolation Scene.”

Hough returns after offering riveting Heinz Hall performances of concerti by Camille Saint-Saens and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He recorded both Mendelssohn concerti in the mid-'90s for the Hyperion label and enjoys playing it again every couple of seasons.

“It's 20 minutes of tremendous invention and energy,” he says. “When I was recording them, I couldn't believe how often I kept seeing ‘fuoco' (fire), in the piano and orchestral music. If you think of a term that would sum up Mendelssohn, some people would chose ‘leggiero' (light) or ‘grazioso' (graceful), but it's actually that fire that gives Mendelssohn his real character — that internal combustion that is so characteristic of his music.”

After saying the concerto's slow movement is like a song without words, and the finale is cleverly filled with good humor and grace, Hough emphasizes ways Mendelssohn was a good composer.

“A lot of time, people who aren't professional musicians don't think about someone being a good composer, a real craftsman — knowing how to take a good tune, where the architecture feels good,” he says. “The actual form of it was unique at the time. It is in one movement formed from three movements running together and using melodies from one in all three movements. It's quite forward-looking and so well-written for the piano, you know he must have been a great pianist.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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