Orchestra's Wagner without words? It works

Life without music, said Nietzsche, would be a mistake. But Wagner without singers is a very good idea indeed. You don't have to worry about an ailing Brünnhilde or malfunctioning stagecraft. A half-concert of orchestral excerpts from Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung Thursday night in Verizon Hall (prefaced by a Beethoven piano concerto) took kind exception to the composer's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk - a single work synthesizing all the arts (to which we'd add technology, especially at the Met). It was just about the music, and that was enough.

Conductor Donald Runnicles and the Philadelphia Orchestra led with "The Ride of the Valkyries," and then spoke, giving clues about which music signifies Siegfried or the end of the world of the gods. It's all useful stuff. But to listen for each passing leitmotif is to limit imagination, involving about as much challenge as naming parts on the assembly line. If music has to be literal, what's the point? Wagner was significant because, note by note, he billowed up ideas beyond mere storyline.

The reason for grounding the Valkyries for the night is to hone attention on Wagner's astonishing expansion of what an orchestra can do - the sonorities, strange silences, exotic instruments (the Wagner tuba), and pinpoint instincts for illuminating what it means to be human (especially when you're a god).

Runnicles may not be the perfect Wagnerite, shaping the music sometimes impatiently, and occasionally unable to draw ensemble precision. But the sweep was there, and the orchestra sourced a seemingly endless palette, the kind that emanates from few opera pits. Hornist Jennifer Montone, oboist Richard Woodhams, clarinetist Ricardo Morales, and four harpists evoked a better realm than Wagner's gods deserved.

The Beethoven, the Piano Concerto No. 1, explored two distinct ideas, both underlined beautifully by the soloist, Lars Vogt - his wondrous legato, and an emphatic heroism. The third movement's loose-limbed freedom let off the feeling that anything could happen, and, happily, everything that did was in service of a strong, and ultimately convincing, point of view.

Additional performance: Saturday at 8 p.m., Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Sts. Information: 215-893-1999, www.philorch.org

Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.