Spano leads comrades, students in music from Wagner’s Ring
Wotan and Brünnhilde aren’t frequent visitors to Boston, nor are the other gods, goddesses, dwarves, and others who populate Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” Because the city lacks a proper opera venue, this landmark work can be glimpsed here only rarely, and then usually in tiny extracts.
So Wednesday’s gala concert at New England Conservatory, a benefit for the school’s new Student Life and Performance Center, should be recognized for the extraordinary opportunity that it is. The NEC Philharmonia, under conductor Robert Spano, will give a concert performance of the third act of “Die Walküre,” with bass-baritone Greer Grimsley as Wotan and soprano Jane Eaglen, of the NEC faculty, as Brünnhilde. Though it’s not the full opera, the act forms a self-contained unit, in which Wotan, ruler of the gods, expels his daughter from Valhalla and strips her of her divinity.
Spano, a former Boston Symphony assistant conductor, spoke to the Globe shortly before arriving to begin rehearsals.
Q. This concert represents a kind of mini-reunion for you, Eaglen, and Grimsley, since you all worked together on the Seattle Opera Ring cycle in 2005. That was your first Ring – what do you remember of it?
A. It was a truly life-altering experience, because I had never conducted Wagner except a couple of overtures. And so the first thing is the whole Ring! [laughs] I started working on it about four years before, and then two years before, I was doing a lot less conducting in the world, just to learn it. Jane was completely seasoned and experienced and wise about approaching the experience of this monumental work. And Greer was doing his first Ring. So at the same time, I had a fellow novice and a real expert. It was amazing to have those colleagues.
What I remember most about Jane’s help personally was, she said, “You know those days off we get? Don’t let them schedule anything! Not a lunch, not an interview, nothing.” She was so right. Because you’re working around the clock, and when you finally do get a day off, you just need to stop.
Q. How did those two perspectives — Grimsley’s and Eaglen’s, newcomer and veteran — merge with one another? Did that create something special between them during the production?
A. Oh, they were electric. I think the reality of one being new and one being seasoned wasn’t in evidence on the stage. What came out of the performance was just electricity.
Q. Any excerpt of the Ring will necessarily be incomplete against the vast scope of the whole narrative. How does Act III do as a kind of self-contained chunk of music-drama?
A. My impression is that it’s going to work great, because it does have its own boundaries and its own trajectory and its own dramatic thrust . . . To me that’s one of the things I found so powerful about studying the Ring — how jewel-like its constituent parts are.
Q. This act in particular seems to really be about a parent who has to cast away a beloved child, and that in itself makes it a terrifying story on its own.
A. Yes — terrifying and heartbreaking. And you’re pointing to something that was a joy in the Seattle Ring. [Director Stephen] Wadsworth’s approach to the whole thing was about how these characters relate to each other and how we relate to them, rather than big comic-book, cardboard cutout, figures enacting this story. He really went for the interpersonal.
Q. What are the challenges of getting a student orchestra to play Wagner well?
A. What is the difference between working with a really seasoned, experienced orchestra and working with incredibly talented young people? In Seattle the orchestra brought the wealth of experience of having done the Ring to the table, so my job really was to define how it’s going to happen this time. And that doesn’t change with younger musicians, but I find that they don’t have those questions ready. “I’ve done it like this, I’ve done it like that, how are we doing it this time?” is not a question that they’re asking. I have a lot of trust that they’re going to latch onto the sound world and make it happen. Also, this isn’t a foreign sound world. Wagner’s aesthetic has permeated our culture — in a sense, he’s a 19th-century Spielberg.
Q. Pick a favorite passage, a moment, in Act III that grabs you every time you do it.
A. It’s near the end of the act. After that glorious orchestral climax, where Wotan sings “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar…” [“That bright pair of eyes…”]
Q. It’s sort of his last farewell before he puts her to sleep.
A. Yeah, the last farewell before the last farewell. [laughs] To me, that is one of the most tender moments in music that I know. The way it flowers and continues to unfold — it’s just magic.
The Massachusetts Cultural Council has launched an initiative to fund music education programs for underserved youth based on Venezuela’s El Sistema. The initiative, SerHacer, is the first state-funded program based on the El Sistema model and will support nine statewide projects that will use music instruction to combat poverty. Among the programs in the first wave are the Kids 4 Harmony program at the Berkshire Children and Families agency and El Sistema Somerville, an after-school program at the East Somerville Community School. Total funding for grants, instruments, and research is $135,000, according to a council spokesman.