When they put together George Hanson's Tucson Symphony Orchestra career highlights to commemorate his finale next season, surely last night's performance of "The Ring Without Words" will make the list.
In the first of two performances — the concert repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday — Hanson led the orchestra in a furiously emotive, raucous ride through the highlights of Richard Wagner's epic "Der Ring des Nibelungen" cycle. Watching all four operas that make up "The Ring" would take you 15 hours — at least — spread over two or three nights. American conductor/composer Lorin Maazel condensed the orchestra parts into a concert piece that clocks in at 70 minutes.
But what an action-packed 70 minutes. Maazel broke the piece up into four movements that are based on each of the four "Ring" operas: "Das Rheingold," "Die Walküre," "Seigfried" and "Götterdämmerung." There are no defined pauses or breaks between movements. The tempo goes from dramatically slow in the opening twilight scene with a motif that's passed from the deep-throated brass through to quiveringly urgent strings as Wotan rages. By the time the orchestra reached the popular "Ride of the Valkyries" near the end of the second opera — possibly the only truly familiar tune for the 80 Cholla High School students sitting in the nearly sold-out Tucson Music Hall audience Friday night — they looked like distance runners who had reached the midway point: not quite breathless, but certainly sporting hints of fatigue.
But they powered through with an intense energy that followed Hanson's lead, He conducted the piece without a score. bringing out all that rich drama and intrigue of Wagner's complex and beautiful music. The performance seemed to flow from a place of quiet passion and intuition.
That also was the impression you got from watching pianist Jeremy Denk perform Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 — the first time the orchestra had ever performed the work. (It also was the first time the TSO played "Ring Without Words" and it has been 20 years since they played the prelude to Act III of Wagner's opera "Lohengrin," which opened the concert.)
Denk is an artist who needs a whole new set of adjectives to describe his performance. He is terrifically talented with unparalleled technical skills. His style is expressive but not at the expense of the composer's intent; the music he creates springs forth not just from notes on a page but from an intuition that goes much deeper.
But that is only one side of the joy of experiencing Denk on a Tucson stage for the first time.
The other, arguably bigger side is watching what goes on before he puts his hands on the keys.
On Friday night, as he sat at the bench while the TSO played the expansive, orchestral showpiece of a first movement, Denk bobbed his head along to the beat. He swayed and moved to and fro as if he were a teen air-conducting a rock band as they jammed.
When the music hopped, Denk bopped. He tapped his foot in time with the beat, shimmied his shoulders along to the soaring strings and rocked along. If the Mozart had written lyrics for the concerto I'm sure Denk would have sung along.
Friday's performance was the first of a busy weekend for the TSO. Tonight they join Grammy winning pop/Christian singer Amy Grant for a special concert at 8 p.m. At 2 p.m. Sunday, they will repeat "Ring Without Words."