David Commanday

Joseph Horowitz

Anton Seidl

Casimer Kossakowski

Zdenek Macal

Corrections or additions?

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.

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David Commanday

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.

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Joseph Horowitz

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."

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Anton Seidl

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."

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Casimer Kossakowski

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."

Top Of Page
Zdenek Macal

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

The Symphonic Wagner, NJ Symphony Orchestra, State

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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