Gioachino Rossini once famously wrote: “Monsieur Wagner has good moments, but awful quarters of an hour.”
For those who agree with Rossini’s quip, the Kansas City Symphony and guest conductor Johannes Debus will take you on a Rhine journey June 1-3 that hits all the high points of Wagner’s Ring Cycle while avoiding what some consider the longueurs. Also on the program is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” with pianist Martin Helmchen as soloist.
In an era that embraces mythic storytelling, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” to “Star Wars” to the current Avengers movies, Wagner’s epic operas seem to be more appreciated than ever. The Ring, a story of elves, gods, dragons and a cursed ring, draws on many of the same Germanic sources as Tolkien’s work and seems especially to resonate with contemporary audiences.
But still, the complete 13-hour, four-opera Ring Cycle is a daunting undertaking for musicians and audiences alike. Almost since the operas were first performed at Bayreuth, Germany, arrangers have tried to make the Ring more user-friendly by excerpting juicy highlights, sometimes in a hasty, awkward manner. English music critic Donald Tovey referred to some such efforts as “the bleeding chunks of butcher’s meat chopped from Wagner’s operas.”
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Debus will conduct Alan Gilbert’s recent arrangement, which, Symphony musical director Michael Stern says, preserves the integrity of Wagner’s operas.
“Gilbert actually makes a very coherent narrative out of the music, even though you don’t have the singing,” he said. “It’s not quite the opera, you don’t have words or stage action, but you do have a linear progression of the story.”
Wagner didn’t think very highly of any composers other than himself, but he was a self-proclaimed devotee of Beethoven. And Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto is one of the few works with the oomph to stand up to Wagner’s ravishing music.
“It’s epic Beethoven,” Stern said. “It’s nothing like the Ring Cycle, but it seemed like a very nice pairing. Plus Martin Helmchen has never been with us. So we’re delighted to have three debuts on this concert: Alan Gilbert’s synthesis of the Ring, the conductor and the soloist. It’s a triple win for everybody.”
8 p.m. June 1 and 2 and 2 p.m. June 3. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$95. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.
‘The Music of the French Counter-Reformation’
French early music isn’t heard nearly often enough on concert programs in Kansas City. Even more rare is specifically Protestant music from the early years of the Reformation in France.
Kantorei has devised a program that explores the rich music of composer Eustache du Caurroy, who lived on the cusp of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, as well as hymns by his Calvinist contemporary Louis Bourgeois. Kantorei will present these rarities in “The Music of the French Counter-Reformation” June 2 at Walnut Gardens Community of Christ in Independence and June 3 at the church of Our Lady of Sorrows.
On the program is the Missa de Profunctis, written for the requiem of King Henry IV of France. The powerful work was subsequently sung at the funerals of French kings for the next several centuries.
“Over the years Kantorei has dusted off many polyphonic works that have never been performed for Kansas City audiences,” artistic director Chris Munce said. “I am more excited about the du Caurroy Missa de Profunctis than I have been about any of them. The richness of the texture, the evocative quality of the writing, along with the use of chant between movements makes it a truly beautiful experience.”
Complementing the grandeur of du Caurroy’s Requiem will be the more austere hymns of Bourgeois, who was responsible for the Genevan Psalter, which provided hymns not only for the Reformed Church in England, but also for the Pilgrims who made their way to the New World.
“Sadly, it’s not often that we hear the old Calvinist hymns sung a cappella and with any thought given to the shape of the phrase and to the expressive capacity of the music,” Munce said. “This is because we mostly hear these hymns in church, sung by the congregation without rehearsal. We wanted to rediscover the hymns of Louis Bourgeois and give them their artistic due.”
7:30 p.m. June 2 at Walnut Gardens Community of Christ, 19201 E. R.D. Mize Road, Independence, and 3 p.m. June 3 at Our Lady of Sorrows, 2552 Gillham Road. $10-$15. Tickets available at the door or at kantoreikc.org.
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at facebook.com/kcartsbeat.