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Wagner, Walton and an English Country Lad

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Saturday night the New York Philharmonic performed the work of three great musicians -- fabulously.

The first was Richard Wagner, his Prelude to "Tannhauser" and the Bacchanalia. This is one of Wagner's best known pieces but if you're used to hearing it from the pit of an opera house (the pit itself was Wagner's invention), it's quite revelatory hearing it played by a huge orchestra in full view.The richness of the sound makes you appreciate anew the power of Wagner's musical understanding and audacity creating such a sumptuous tonal picture. Needless to say, the brilliance, passion and precision of the performers, under Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert, made it a thrilling experience.

During World War II, Laurence Olivier (not yet Sir) made a film of Shakespeare's most unabashedly patriotic play, Henry V. The background score was by the eminent British composer William Walton, whose music is played too seldom in our concert halls. (That is true of all the major British composers -- I'm afraid their work is too accessible, too enjoyable to have attained favor with those who program symphonic concerts.

The symphonic suite Christopher Palmer arranged from the film score does not really have a form. Some of it is based on traditional English dance forms, though decked out in the gorgeous raiment of the modern orchestra. Some sequences have the surge essential for the background to battle scenes. Other passages have an almost unearthly serenity I associate with British music -- Walton, Vaughan Williams, Elgar. The music is built around a wise selection of speeches from the play itself.

I began by talking about three great musicians. The third, of course, is Shakespeare, whose achievement you appreciate anew on an evening like this. Some languages make poetry easy -- saying the most mundane things in French or Italian sounds beautiful. English is a homespun, almost arrogantly plainspoken language. Only a genius can make it soar the way it does in this play.

To project this music you need a very powerful instrument. Saturday night that instrument was the golden voice of Christopher Plummer, who participated in the creation of this suite in 1988. A few years have passed since then but his voice remains pungent and extremely musical. Needless to say he brings every resource of his mastery to bear on the poetry. It was an unforgettable experience.

A few years ago, when I was blogging for the New York Daily News I chastised then Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens for adhering to the cult that thinks Shakespeare's plays were written by the 34th Earl of Oxford. Looking back over that piece, which prompted a surprising amount of hostile response, I realize I made many cogent arguments refuting this nonsense, but for some reason omitted the most important. Oxford died in 1604, and there is documentary evidence that Shakespeare continued writing until at least 1611.

The later plays reflect a fashion that only came into being in the last few years of his career. Even if the Earl of Oxford had placed the later work in a vault before his death he could not have anticipated this change of style.

Around this time I had the good fortune to be seated next to the painter Cornelia Foss at a dinner party. I mentioned the controversy to her and she said something memorable. She has always regarded such theories as a form of nihilism because they implicitly deny the existence of genius.

How truly wise. The notion that a writer can only write about what he has experienced -- Shakespeare could not have written about Italy because there's no evidence he went there on a Cook's Tour -- diminishes the miraculous powers of the human imagination.

It's easier to understand in musical terms. No one ever composed like Wagner until Wagner. Where could he have heard the sounds he created? Only in his head. A great artist relies as much on the indefinable world in his head as the everyday world he experiences. This concert was an overpowering lesson in the magic of the human imagination.