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KSO celebrates 200 years of Wagner

The Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra held its final concert of the 2012-13 season last Saturday, March 2. The theme of the roughly two-hour concert was “Wagner’s 200th Anniversary” and traced the development of Wagner himself, as well as those who followed him and those who rejected him.

The KSO performed one movement each from three of Wagner’s operas, from Wagner’s early, middle and late phases in his career.

The first selection, “Arrival of the Guests at Wartburg”, from “Tannhäuser”, represented what KSO director Dr. Joel Neves described as the “Imitation” phase of Wagner’s career; although the music had traces of the chromatic dissonance and romanticism that would define his career, the work was clearly an imitation of the Italian greats of the time.

The second Wagner piece, “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral”, from “Lohengrin”, represented the “Discovery” phase of Wagner’s career, in which Wagner stopped imitating those who came before and started to experiment with his own style.

The final Wagner piece, “Prelude to Act III”, from “Tristan und Isulde”, represented the period where Wagner had mastered his own style.

The KSO also performed the works of other composers who had either followed or rejected Wagner. Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 4, Second Movement” represented the anti-Wagner side, although Neves admitted that work was possible the most Wagnerian selection of Brahms’ career.

Other selections from both sides included Reinhold Gliere’s “Russian Sailor’s Dance”, Edvard Grieg’s “Solveig’s Song” and Piotr Thaikovsky’s “Marche Slav”.

The highlight of the night might well have been the performance of Johann Strauss II’s “Bauern-Polka”, a drinking song written by “the hip-hop artist of 1860’s Vienna.”  The orchestra even sang along to the polka, an obviously uncommon act in a symphony orchestra, to which Neves joked “…you can see why. We’re no MTU concert choir.”

Between songs, Neves explained to the audience what made Wagner’s music so unique at the time. Music that could be described as “Wagnerian” involved chromatic dissonance, a wide variety of contrast and was highly emotional. Neves also talked about Wagner himself, including the development of his career over time and the fact that he was in many ways not a very good person, explaining that “Wagner… rejected conventional morality.” Most infamously, he was a notorious anti-Semite, whose works were later favored by Adolf Hitler.

The orchestra itself had a bit of a shaky start in the first few seconds of the concert, but otherwise played very well throughout the night. Neves also took the time to recognize the graduating seniors in the orchestra.

The KSO’s next performance will be “Fiddler on the Roof”, which will be in collaboration with the Tech Theatre Company.

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