On Friday morning, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra presented excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen conducted by Philippe Jordan and featuring soprano Iréne Theorin. The dynamic range of the orchestra varied from barely audible rumbling tones, suggesting the depths of the Rhine River, to the enormous aural and emotional punch of Siegfried’s death. Listening to this music in the amazing acoustics of Disney Hall was a fabulous experience.

Philippe Jordan © JF Leclercq
Philippe Jordan
© JF Leclercq

Maestro Jordan did not present a cut down version of the score. Every instrument Wagner called for was on stage, even the six harps, but the only sung piece was Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene. The music of few composers can define an orchestra the way Wagner’s Ring can. Although the total number of players is enormous, there are numerous solo moments and almost every first chair has a notable motif.

Das Rheingold gives listeners a vivid description of the depths of the Rhine. Starting softly, the prelude begins a long crescendo that becomes an audience-enveloping mass of sound. Even in the midst of this block of sound, however, the texture of each phrase was translucent enough to allow patrons to hear the sonorities of the various instrumental groups. The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla followed a mix of orchestral interludes drawn from this opera. After Donner, the God of Storms, strikes his hammer, seven percussionists saw that no beat was forgotten. While imaginary clouds parted and the gods crossed the rainbow bridge into Valhalla, harps, woodwinds and strings accompanied a long lined, romantic melody that masks the promise of conflict to come.

In Disney Hall the orchestra is literally “center stage” with the audience seated in sharply banked tears on all sides. Almost all of the reflective surfaces are wood and the acoustics are astoundingly good. The LA Phil is one of the world’s great orchestras and the best place to hear it is in its bright, shining 14-year-old home.

Brünnhilde’s story begins in Die Walküre where she is a Valkyrie riding her steed. Later, she is the disobedient daughter of Wotan who loses her immortality. Here, Jordan evoked pathos from the orchestra and drew sound pictures of Wotan disciplining his beloved daughter but surrounding her with a protective ring of fire. Those tones went straight to the heart. 

The music of Siegfried again shows Wagner the nature lover. Having already described the river, he now shows us the wonders of Germany’s primeval forest with particularly beautiful playing by principal clarinettist Boris Allakhverdyan and the other woodwind players. Having tasted the dragon’s blood, Siegfried listens to the Woodbird’s song and begins to understand her words. Thus, Wagner provides the respite his tragedy needs at this point. This music also allowed Jordan to show that he could draw ethereal splendor from his players in soft and lyrical as well as loud and dramatic circumstances. 

After a short intermission, Jordan and the LA Phil played Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, garnishing it with a distant horn call played off-stage. Memories of walking in the Black Forest with its patches of cool fog came to mind. Then, the shattering tragedy of Siegfried’s Funeral March hit the audience like cold rain. Its music may be the most harrowing description of death ever written. Although most conductors call for its percussive sounds to be flat and dry, Jordan’s beats were relatively live, as though to say that even though the hero is dead, his story will continue to be told for many generations into the future. 

It was a long wait for Götterdämerung and the vocal finale, but at the end of the funeral march, our regal Brünnhilde, Iréne Theorin, clad in a beaded black gown with a train, strode to center stage for the Immolation. Her flute-like high notes pierced the orchestral blend and her lower tones poured forth a tapestry of colors that could always be distinguished from the instrumental sonorities. Her strong, golden sound created a magical atmosphere. Wotan’s ravens flew home at her bidding and Grane, her steed, came in spirit at her call. At the end, waves of sound washed over listeners as one world ended and a new one began. Jordan’s well thought out interpretation together with Theorin’s assumption of the role of Brünnhilde resulted in a most memorable performance of these excerpts from the Ring. Not only did the usual members of the LA Phil play magnificently, so did the many extra players who participated in this very special performance.