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Behind the Push for a Wagner Retrospective
Story by Elaine Strauss published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 20, 1999. All rights reserved.
I cannot live without Wagner," says Zdenek Macal,
music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at a January 8
press conference devoted to presenting the NJSO program for the 1999-2000
season. The declared purpose of the meeting is to talk about coming
events, but it is the day after the initial concert in a three-week
mini-festival based on the orchestral music from Richard Wagner’s
"Der Ring," the cycle of four operas drawn from Teutonic mythology,
and so intense is Macal’s enthusiasm for the festival that it permeates
his press conference.
Indeed, Macal is so enveloped in the Wagner programs that he has forgotten
that it is his 63rd birthday, and has caused his wife also to forget.
However, the staff remembers the occasion, and has arranged to surprise
Macal with a playing of "Happy Birthday" on the violin, and
a birthday cake with candles. Momentarily speechless, an unusual state
for him, the energetic Macal collects himself and blows out the candles
with such force that the frothy icing splatters onto his clothing.
The Wagner festival is a project that Macal has seen through in the
face of opposition. When the festival was first announced, a skeptical
journalist demanded justification for it. Macal refused to pursue
the discussion. "If people don’t want to come," he said, "they
don’t have to." (In some circles political correctness requires
shunning the music of Wagner, who lived from 1813 to 1883, was notably
anti-Semitic, and later was greatly admired by Hitler.) Now the expansive
Macal, looking back on bringing the Wagner programs to life, says,
"Patience is not my strongest point. I must always push. And I
have no regrets about pushing for the Wagner retrospective." "The
Symphonic Wagner: An American Tradition," week three in the festival
schedule, can be heard in New Brunswick’s State Theater on Thursday,
January 21, at 8 p.m.
The point of departure for the festival is the nature of Wagner’s
operatic writing: Rather than subordinating orchestral lines to vocal
lines, Wagner’s operas embody orchestral music that has a life of
its own, and an existence independent of the singing. Nevertheless,
recognizing Wagner’s vocal aspects, soprano Alessandra Marc joins
the NJSO in its performance of music from Wagner’s "Gotterdammerung"
("Twilight of the Gods"), the last opera in the "Ring"
cycle, in the final week of the NJSO Wagner festival.
David Commanday, the NJSO’s associate conductor, gives a free pre-concert
lecture at 6:45 p.m. in New Brunswick. Commanday’s habitual approach
in a pre-concert lecture is to present the music from the inside,
with musicians revealing what it’s like to perform it. He will talk
about the opera, excerpts, and the philosophical implications of the
"Ring." Additional performances of the concert take place
at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on January 22 and
24, and are preceded by pre-concert lectures by musicologist Joseph
Horowitz, journalist and Wagner scholar, who talks on "Wagner
and the End of the World." Horowitz’s insightful program booklet,
which includes an interview with Macal, an account of Wagner’s presence
in 19th century American symphonic performances, and a discussion
of Wagner’s four-opera "Ring" cycle, is distributed to audiences
at all of the concerts.
As Horowitz details in his prize-winning 1994 book "Wagner Nights:
an American History," which focuses on New York’s musical life
in the 1890s, adapting Wagner’s operas for symphony orchestra is a
notably American tradition. Because 19th-century America had a thriving
orchestral life, and relatively few opera houses, many Americans were
introduced to Wagner’s music through symphonic syntheses of his music.
Macal’s Wagner festival bows to the sweep of American musical history.
A previous program in the NJSO’s three-week Wagner festival incorporated
a symphonic synthesis by Anton Seidl, not heard in more than a century,
and a symphonic synthesis by Leopold Stokowski, not heard in more
than 50 years. The final program is devoted to Macal’s own symphonic
synthesis of "Gotterdammerung."
Seidl, who had worked with Wagner in Europe, came to
New York in 1885 as principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera,
which opened in 1883. Named conductor of the New York Philharmonic
in 1891, he treated willing operatic and symphonic audiences in New
York to copious doses of Wagner. His devoted followers included the
women of the Brooklyn-based Seidl society, who wore the letter "S"
on their clothing. Seidl’s symphonic syntheses of Wagner were relatively
faithful to the originals. Stokowski took more liberties with Wagner’s
music than Seidl did.
Horowitz, interviewed by telephone from New York, tells of accidentally
unearthing the Seidl score. "I discovered the Seidl score in an
archive at Columbia University," he says. "At the time I was
the only person who knew it was there. I was working on the Seidl
book, and just rummaging around." Horowitz reacts in a kindly
manner to the liberties that Stokowski took with Wagner’s music. "Stokowski
was creative, even brazen, in creating his Wagner pieces," he
says. "When you take a two and a half hour opera and boil it down
to 25 minutes, obviously you’re going to insert a lot of yourself."
Macal, who has singularly good relations with the press, came to plan
the festival as it finally emerged after musicologist Horowitz, wearing
his journalist hat, interviewed him. "Horowitz was writing a book
about Seidl, and I was very interested. We talked for several hours,
and came to the Seidl and Stokowski syntheses. I was not originally
intending to include them. But when I saw that Seidl and Stokowski
had syntheses, I thought it would save me a lot of time. We still
needed a lot of Siegfried music. Next I consulted the librarian. What
we’re doing now is the result of a year-and-a-half’s work."
NJSO librarian Casimer Kossakowski, put on the trail by Horowitz,
tracked down the Stokowski score, and incidentally discovered that
Stokowski included in it, without attribution, the work of German
composer Herman Zumpe. Macal filled the "Siegfried" gap by
writing his own syntheses for the opera.
Horowitz attributes enormous significance to Wagner’s "Ring"
and to Wagner’s musical output, in general. "It’s amazing how
the `Ring’ seems perennially pertinent," he says. "It engenders
an act of renewal without any special pleading. We can always find
things in Wagner that we can relate to. He holds up a mirror in any
time and place. He’s a chameleon-like figure with a different meaning
for Hitler, in France, and for Seidl. He’s a gigantic resonator. I
can’t think of anything else like it."
Horowitz rejects the suggestion that Shakespeare is in the same class
as Wagner. "Shakespeare doesn’t bring out so much controversial
content," he says. "Wagner was a voracious reader. He knew
Shakespeare. `Macbeth’ had a tangible influence on `Gotterdammerung’
with its blood, guts, and villainy. But Wagner is the greatest cultural
resonator I know. He continues to enrage and delight people, and he
evokes passionate feelings of admiration and disgust. He’s a lightning
rod. Shakespeare doesn’t catalyze so passionate and violent a response.
Nobody hates Shakespeare. But people hate Wagner. Nobody’s indifferent."
Macal’s devotion to Wagner is not quite as all-consuming as Horowitz’s.
Prompted to name his favorite composer, the conductor, whose native
language is Czech, says, "If you ask me now I tell you Wagner.
If you ask me when I’m conducting Mahler, I would say Mahler."
Macal first heard Wagner’s music as a child in Brno, Czechoslovakia.
"The Brno opera company performed eight times week," he says.
"There was a big cultural overlap with Germany. In my parents’
generation almost everybody spoke German." Trained in Brno, Macal
made his American debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1972. As conductor
of the Milwaukee Symphony, he participated in civic life, insisting
on throwing out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers’ game where
the orchestra played the national anthem. He was appointed music
director of the NJSO in 1993.
In the attempt to pinpoint Wagner’s attraction for him,
he says, "It’s hard to say in one phrase. It’s the beauty of his
music, which is very dramatic, very passionate, and very erotic. The
appeal will last for centuries."
One of the problems of mounting a Wagner program, Macal points out,
is the need for large performing forces. "Extra players are needed,"
he says, "and the financial aspect is one reason why Wagner is
not played so often. We hired some 30 extra musicians for our Wagner
Admitting that Wagner was very much with him at the press conference
devoted to the NJSO’s next season, he says, "If you fall in love
with Wagner, it never leaves you alone. Being a Wagnerian is like
having an addiction. But it’s better than other things that are less
About conducting Wagner, Macal says, "From a technical point of
view it’s no different from conducting anything else, but the emotional
impact is so strong that it can influence your experience on stage.
Conducting Wagner can be as emotional an experience as listening to
it in the audience."
Musicologist Horowitz detected Macal’s involvement with the music
as his contacts with Macal unfolded. "I can see why Macal wanted
to do festival based on `Der Ring,’" he says. "He’s so marvelously
attuned to it and feels it so deeply."
"Macal never conducted a Wagner opera, and that’s regrettable,"
says Horowitz, who does not count the inclusion of large selections
from Wagner operas in Macal’s symphonic programs. "There aren’t
that many great Wagner conductors out there," he says. "It
takes passion," he says. "The erotic passion of the scene
where Wotan says farewell to his favorite daughter [in the first concert
of the festival] is not something that every conductor can convey.
It also takes a certain kind of emotional courage, which Macal has.
He is also a born conductor physically. The way he uses his body and
gestures with his arms can’t be learned. He has a passionate understanding
of music and a very natural ability to convey the music. I met him
for the first time on this project. But you meet him and you get the
idea very quickly." Indeed, the emotional Macal is singularly
approachable and open.
"I am always interested in conducting Wagner opera," Macal
says. "But I always say `later, later, later.’ Even if I try,
for a symphony conductor there is not so much opportunity to do opera.
I was able to open my Paris program with half a Wagner opera. But
it’s a problem of timing. I always get requests, but I can’t imagine
spending six weeks or several months with one opera company."
Macal has guest conducted over 150 orchestras in the world. Highlights
of his 1998-’99 season include the National Symphony, and the Montreal,
St. Louis, and Chicago symphonies. In Europe he makes appearances
with the Frankfurt Symphony, the Vienna Symphony, Turin Radio Symphony,
and the Monte Carlo Symphony. "At the moment I’m staying with
symphonic excerpts of operas," Macal says. "But if I get an
offer, I will think twice before I say no, and will do everything
I can to adjust my schedule.
— Elaine Strauss
Theater, New Brunswick, 800-ALLEGRO. Associate conductor David Commanday
gives a pre-concert lecture at 6:45 p.m. $12-$49. Thursday, January
21, 8 p.m.
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