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Gerald Carpenter: Academy Summer Festival Taking Its Final Bow

The Music Academy of the West’s 2013 Summer Festival takes its final bow — as usual a grand one — with a concert by the Academy Festival Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Granada Theatre.

The hyper-Romantic program consists of the Overture to Richard Wagner’s third opera, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes (1842); Gustav Mahler’s Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; and Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts, Opus 14.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73) wrote a string of historical novels that were bestsellers and made him rich without compromising his lofty social position. He published Rienzi, the last of the Roman tribunes, in 1835. Wagner read it in 1837, while he was living in Riga — a cuckold’s exile, his wife having left him for another man — and began making sketches to turn the novel into an opera. He finished the work, insofar as he ever finished it, in 1840, and it was first performed in 1842.

Despite lasting over six hours, including intermissions, in this first version, the opera was a tremendous hit and put the composer permanently on the map. In form, the five-act Rienzi was a grand opera in the manner of Meyerbeer — who was instrumental in getting it and The Flying Dutchman performed — but the music is already completely Wagner (however clever Hans von Bülow might have been in hailing it as “Meyerbeer’s greatest work”).

Some modern critics have been severe, but Mahler — who had heard all of Wagner’s operas and had conducted many of them — called Rienzi “the greatest musical drama ever composed.” (The fact that Meyerbeer and Mahler were both Jews, while Wagner was a reputed anti-Semite gives a certain poignancy to Nietzsche’s remark, “God help the European mind if the Jewish mind is subtracted from it!”) The Wagner cult begins here, with this gorgeous overture.

Mahler’s first five symphonies all bear traces of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the first four contain substantial chunks of verbatim music from the cycle/collection — so much so that they are known collectively as “The Wunderhorn Symphonies.” The cycle is not performed as often as his other song cycles — it can’t be length, because The Song of the Earth, a cycle in all but name, is performed much more often — but the work is absolutely crucial to grasping Mahler’s principles of composition: the vocal line is always paramount.

Except for the prolonged and peculiar doldrums of the Third Movement (you’ll know it from the fits of coughing that break out all around you), the Symphony Fantastique is a deliriously exciting work, revolutionary in all but discords. Berlioz had a unique sense of melody and a surprisingly detached insight to the Romantic mind (surprising because he was, himself, the most Romantic composer of them all).

Tickets to the Festival Orchestra are $48, $38 and $15. They can be purchased by phone at 805.969.8787 or online by clicking here. Tickets are also available from the Granada box office at 805.899.2222.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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