The San Diego Symphony Offers the Questionable Virtues of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Without Singers

After Music Director Rafael Payare and the San Diego Symphony’s highly successful season-opening concert last week at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, I returned with high expectations to the orchestra’s Bayside venue Friday for their second concert of the season. Last week boasted a substantial house that responded enthusiastically to Payare’s well-chosen barrage of five engaging new works, including Billy Childs’ spectacular Saxophone Concerto, and a familiar Richard Strauss tone poem to boot.

This week’s San Diego Symphony program offered two works, a reprise of Carlos Simon’s commissioned Wake Up: A Concerto for Orchestra that the orchestra had premiered on its October 7, 2023, pre-Carnegie Hall concert and The Ring Without Words, an orchestral version of portions of Richard Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle arranged by the late American conductor Lorin Maazel.

The Rady Shell with projections by Gary Griffin & Mike Tutaj; lighting by Jason Rothberg [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

It is somewhat unusual to hear a recently premiered work repeated so soon after its debut, but Simon’s stirring, beautifully scored Wake Up gives every section of the orchestra a chance to bask in the spotlight and offers first-chair players throughout the orchestra a cornucopia of engaging, idiomatic solos. It is a worthy addition to the orchestral repertory, and I am heartened that the National Symphony, the other commissioner of the work, will perform it in January, 2024, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and then take it on their European tour the following month.

However, having experienced on Thursday another recent Carlos Simon composition at UC San Diego, his Requiem for the Enslaved—a telling, hour-long chamber work—I had a second thought experiencing his Wake Up again on Friday. In Simon’s Requiem, his well wrought structure and tight integration of instrumental themes reminded me of the specific qualities that would have improved his episodic Wake Up.

Reading Gerard McBurney’s exhaustive notes about The Ring Without Words in the printed program, I came across a sentence that should have raised a red flag going into the work’s performance on Friday. To justify Maazel’s arrangement of various instrumental sections from the Ring Cycle into a 70-minute piece for orchestra alone, McBurney wrote:

‘The point of course is to allow us to hear the glory of Wagner’s orchestral mastery without the distraction and expense of singers, words, and scenery.’

After listening to the orchestra’s performance of The Ring Without Words, I would say this was more like enjoying a B.L.T. sandwich without the inconvenience of bacon, lettuce and tomato.

Although Wagner was a master a building suspense, expectation, and fury in his orchestra, as well as using it to depict all of nature’s cataclysms, we treasure this skill because it sets the stage for the drama that his powerful singers express in glorious, larger than life singing. His singers are not a distraction—their drama is the point of opera!

To be certain, under Payare’s passionate direction, the orchestra created all of this powerful operatic background with majestic strength. It did not, however, create a coherent, moving 70-minute experience for this listener.

Rather, it reminded me of a time decades ago when eager audiophiles would show off the power of their very expensive, complex audio systems, rattling the windows and alarming the neighbors. They treasured the power of their music systems, but they were not particularly interested in the music that caused the sonic excess.

“The Ring Without Words” program was presented at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park by the San Diego Symphony on November 10 & 11, 2023. The November 10 concert was attended for this review.


  1. Michael Sokol on November 13, 2023 at 11:03 am

    Great review and absolutely true—Wagner was creating his new world THEATER not concert music. Taking out 4/5ths of his work might be an interesting esoteric exercise, but don’t pretend it’s Wagner. For an orchestra that takes pains to give us a movie with John Williams score attached, I’m kind of bewildered. (and bothered but not bewitched!) And why can’t we have a longer Ken Herman review? This seemed so truncated!

    • Ken Herman on November 13, 2023 at 9:29 pm

      Michael, I interpret your demand for a longer review as a compliment. This review was shorter than usual for two reasons: I had already reviewed the Carlos Simon “Wake Up” when the San Diego Symphony premiered it in October, and once I had explained my reservations about this odd “Ring” with no singers–what more could I say?

  2. Sue Marberry on November 18, 2023 at 8:29 am

    Your reviews are so refreshing! I laughed out loud at the BLT analogy, and agree completely – I found it rather tedious and lacking coherent structure.

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