When we think of hardest orchestral pieces to play, names like Mahler, Strauss, Iver, Bruckner and Wagner come to mind. Of Wagner, what comes to mind is, of course, his “Der Ring des Nibelungen” or the Ring of Nibelung. Famous for the excerpt that we call the “Ride of the Valkyries,” which appeared in the soundtrack for the iconic movie “Apocalypse Now,” this grueling 15 hour piece has been the cause of much strife and struggle for the Amherst Symphony Orchestra for the past two months.
Of course, the orchestra won’t be playing the entire 15 hour piece — it would be an impossible task to perform such a gigantic piece on only two months’ worth of recitals. And while the work itself is an opera, the orchestra will only be playing orchestral excerpts of the piece, in what the orchestra’s conductor, Mark Swanson, calls a “Symphonic Synthesis” of the entire work.
Swanson called his interpretation of the piece a “70-minute compilation of ‘greatest hits’ from Wagner’s four-opera sixteen-hour ‘Ring’ cycle [that] depicts universal symbols and metaphors — and eternal conflicts between gods and mortals, between pure love and the pursuit of riches, between heroic bravery and cowardly fear, between power/control and abandon/surrender.”
Student members of the orchestra seem to have similar thoughts about the piece. Sam Rosenblum, a trumpeter from the class of 2016, said “The great American filmmaker Woody Allen once said, ‘I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.’ While Allen might be joking about Wagner’s antisemitism, he offers players a way to understand Wagner. Wagner is all about conquering the new.”
Another student, Alexandra Morgan Welch ’14 said “It is such a profound experience to be able to play such a musical masterpiece before graduating. After playing in orchestras for almost 15 years, it is not likely that I will be given the opportunity to play music like this ever again in my lifetime.”
Of course, playing such a monumental piece doesn’t come without the pains of having to actually learn how to play it. As a member of the second violin section, I’ve experienced firsthand how excruciatingly annoying some of the runs are to play: chromatic, diminished, half-diminished arpeggios galore and all at a ridiculous speed.
Those who have played an instrument before might understand the technical absurdity of this piece. And for those who haven’t played before, one can only describe the experience like trying to swim against a current. The tempo just keeps on moving forward and you must do everything in your power to keep yourself from drowning and being overwhelmed by the sheer number of notes to be played.
When asked to comment about why he chose such a technically demanding piece, Swanson replied, “No other liberal arts college would dare to tackle this work; but this is Amherst and we don’t say no to challenges. In fact, that a liberal arts college orchestra can play this work this well is a tribute to the focus, hard work and commitment of the talented musicians at Amherst who play for the love of music and art.” He gave a particular acknowledgement to the fact that “‘The Ring’ calls on massive orchestral forces: nine horns, four trumpets, four trombones and doubled woodwinds” and that we are lucky to be able to fulfill those requirements with minimal augmentation from players outside of Amherst’s own student body.
The concert this Saturday will definitely be a sight to see and hear. Literally ‘to see’ because they will be “projecting iconic illustrations by early 20-century illustrator Arthur Rackham accompanied by a simple outline of the plot,” and ‘to hear’ because it will be Wagner, Amherst students and one of the hardest orchestral pieces known to music, right at Buckley Music hall. Come watch us suffer and prevail.
Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013 at 8:30 p.m.: Bicentennial Tribute to Richard Wagner. Preconcert talk at 7:30 p.m. in Arms Music Center Room 3 (Professor Christian Rogowski).