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'Ring Without Words' wows symphony audience

09.14.08
Cho-Liang Lin
Honolulu Advertiser

On Saturday night, violinist Cho-Liang Lin delivered a luminescent performance of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2, but it was the Honolulu Symphony's "Ring Without Words" that captured the audiences' hearts.

The "Ring Without Words" is conductor/composer Lorin Maazel's arrangement of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen," a cycle of four operas that constitutes one of the monuments of classical music.

Although numerous passages from Wagner's "Ring" have entered popular culture (remember Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in "Kill da Wabbit"?), the cycle's length - over 15 hours of music - precludes intimate familiarity for most people.

In order to make the music more accessible, Maazel condensed the cycle into about an hour of instrumental highlights in chronological order, beginning with the dawning measures of the first opera, "Das Rheingold," and ending with the apocalyptic fall of Valhalla in the last, "Gotterdammerung" (The Twilight of the Gods).

Because Maazel was so careful to change as little as possible, the result is less an arrangement than a medley - a succession of loosely connected well-known pieces, along the lines of "Greatest Hits." In fact, when Maestro Andreas Delfs announced the piece last spring, he characterized it as "all the best parts, with all the boring bits left out."

For those who know the "Ring" cycle well, memory will likely fill in the missing parts, so that the medley may feel as though someone were fast-forwarding through, pausing now and then to enjoy a favorite passage. For those unfamiliar with the story or familiar with only one or two pieces, the medley may sound more like a series of disjunctive sections.

In Maazel's version, climaxes arrive out of nowhere, without the tides of momentum Wagner built for them; lyrical passages have no contextual fabric or follow-through; and transitions are unapologetically audible, announcing each scene shift.

 "Ring Without Words" is mostly just good fun, but it also allows listeners to enjoy some of Wagner's greatest music, much of which is rarely heard in a concert hall. On Saturday, there were occasional glitches and phasing problems, but Delfs and the Honolulu Symphony played with such enthusiasm that their rousing performance brought most of the audience to their feet for the ovation.

The audience seemed less impressed by violinist Lin's performance in the first half, even though it was inspiring.

There was a time when Lin played the piece quite differently, more conventionally:  he first modeled his interpretation on a fellow artist's "propulsive, driven" performances of Prokofiev, which were widely acclaimed. But during a four-performance run in Philadelphia, Lin listened to a recording of his first night and realized, "This is all wrong - I'm playing it so aggressively. I had to completely modify my approach. [The Violin Concertos] are so lyrical."

Lin's performance on Saturday was indeed exceptionally lyrical, partly because of the beauty of his phrasing, but also because of the quality of his sound.

That sound may partly have been because of his instrument, a Stradivari called the "Titian" and made in 1715, but it mostly reflected Lin's belief that a violinist's timbre is unique.

 "All musicians must have a sound in their head in order to produce it, and it is the job of a great teacher to show them how to get it out. Probably ninety percent of my sound production came from Dorothy DeLay," Lin's teacher at Juilliard School of Music and one of the most acclaimed teachers of her generation.

Lin's vehicle, Prokofiev's Second was wonderful in many ways: it had beautiful, folk-song-like melodies and a melting middle movement, demanded an impressive technique from the soloist, employed a charming varied-echo developmental technique, and climaxed with a vivid, quirky, irregularly angular and Stravinsky-esque final movement.

For all that, however, it was not a showcase work. Lin's part was so fully integrated with the orchestra's that the two seemed to meld, and Lin's pyrotechnics were often relegated to accompaniment, overshadowed by orchestral melodies.

Nonetheless, Lin's playing was outstanding, and his interpretation was an eloquent lesson on Prokofiev.