The review below appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of Apr. 10, 2005.
For anyone who saw the excellent Metropolitan Opera telecast of Wagner's Die Meistersinger last Sunday, this week's New Mexico Symphony Orchestra concert should have been a welcome reprise.
In performance with Roger Melone's Symphony Chorus, the orchestra presented excerpts from Tannhäuser and Lohengrin as well as the composer's only comic opera. Most appropriately, the program included music by Wagner's father-in-law, Franz Liszt.
Though admittedly much of Liszt's piano music was written for bravura showmanship, he also created many works of striking harmonic originality, such as the Piano Concerto No. 2, which had a profound effect on the young Wagner. Between them, they developed a musical language so powerfully attractive as to send the 20th century into back spasms trying to find its voice.
While the first Piano Concerto is full of dramatic and flamboyant gestures, the second Concerto emphasizes the lyric side of Liszt's musical personality and is actually a more accomplished composition, though no less difficult in execution. Ivonne Figueroa, sister of music director Guillermo Figueroa, took the stage as guest soloist, giving as bold a performance of this work as one is likely to hear, from demonically ripping into the lowest registers of the instrument at full volume to dancing through the featherstitching of the final Allegro animato. Glowing tones filled the slower Allegro moderato, as brilliant passagework gave sparkling animation to the Allegro deciso.
There is virtually no respite for the soloist. Once she begins, there is barely time to catch her breath. Transitions were handled most effectively, as the continuous nature of the work gives rise to frequent transformation of material. Here was a vibrant, exciting display of pianism with Ivonne Figueroa deserving the heartfelt standing ovation she received.
In regards to opera, while the Italians might bring a tear to one's eye, Wagner wrote music that could be literally a life-changing experience for his contemporary audiences at least. So overpowering was his all-encompassing vision that it uplifted opera into a new genre based in the rigors of symphony construction. He called it "music drama."
A selection of well-known excerpts provided a whirlwind tour through the greatest musical works staged. In the overture to Tannhäuser, the somber, earth-bound beauty of the Pilgrim's Chorus gives way to the celestial erotic pleasures of Venus foreshadowing the battle that rages in the work.
In the Prelude to Lohengrin, Wagner ascends to the heights of genuine spirituality and gives us a glimpse at what humanity may be capable of achieving. Some brilliant playing from the brass section filled the Prelude to Act III of the same work, following which the chorus sang the "Wedding March" in its unabridged ceremony.
Figueroa held together the forces of these difficult works conveying serene profundity to magisterial awe. He has said that Wagner is the most frequently requested composer, and I hope the success of this program will give rise to more, perhaps whole scenes in the future.
A triumphant concert in all respects and one I could have wished lasted all night.