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Kill the Wabbit -- Wagner at Wolf Trap

Buggs Bunny as BrünnhildeI now know why Emil de Cou does not mind leading an orchestra at Wolf Trap: where else would he get an announcement over the speaker-system like the team’s star quarterback taking to the gridiron? Thus opened a musical saga that began in the footsteps of hairy-footed hobbits meandering their way through Howard Shore’s score depicting Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings – a medley of appropriations, plagiarism, and appealing banalities.

It was followed by a little speech on the part of Wolf Trap Festival Conductor de Cou that would have had my eyes rolling at the Kennedy Center but was appropriate and funny in the Wolf Trap setting… reading the mood of the summery crowd just perfectly. Except, perhaps, when he made reference to the incestuous traditions of the deep south… even if such a reference is rather difficult to avoid when summarizing Wagner’s Ring cycle.

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The Anna Russell Album
The jokes about The Ring (Brother-Sister-Nephew-Aunt-Fat-Ladies-in-armor etc.) were not particularly new, but they are nearly as timeless as the music itself – and truth be told, I am thankful if the conductor gets a good amount of Wagner neophytes thinking about Elmer Fudd and ‘killing that wabbit’, rather than proto-Nazism, Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner, and the Holocaust.

Emil de Cou is one of the most affectionate and passionate conductors I have heard or seen on the podium – but the efficiency of that is near-impossible to tell in the setting of the Filene Center… much like it would be difficult to judge the lumen efficiency of a light bulb on a Sahara afternoon. The short-sleeved, substitute-studded National Symphony Orchestra did play with panache and skill (first violins were a little underpowered and occasionally scrappy – but it featured happy brass), and Wagner was appropriately played for beauty (which it should be, anyway) and effect (which served the setting’s purpose). From the Rhine Journey to the Funeral March it led to the orchestral hum-along blockbuster, the Ride of the Valkyries that sent the thousands at Wolf Trap into half time with Germanic vigor and imaginary horns.

Other Reviews:

Mark J. Estren, National Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, July 22)
The impact of an orgiastic choral and orchestral bonanza, like the ever-popular Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, is undeniable in its amplified bombast. The Robert Shafer-trained Washington Chorus may not have come across with particular detail – but the gain in dramatic effect more than made up for this. Subtleties subside but Carmina needs to be heard like this, every once in a while. (Although if you feel inspired to found or join a political party within an hour of listening: Don’t!) Unlike opera, which is a damnable mess in the acoustic of the Filene Center, these kind of showpieces can shine.

The capable young singers were baritone Weston Hunt, the heavily miked tenor/swan (not a goose, last time I checked) Javier Abreau, and the radiant soprano Maureen McKay, a Filene Young Artist who acted her part charmingly and kept an effective, maximum distance from the microphone. For an unpretentious, un-intimidating classical music evening with beer and bug spray, Wolf Trap offers a few more concerts this summer.