More curious still, perhaps, is the fact that Wagner entrusted a devoted Jewish disciple, Hermann Levi, with conducting the premiere of the composer's most heavily Christian work, "Parsifal."

There are stories of Wagner and his equally, if not more, anti-Semitic wife Cosima, urging Levi to convert. But here is Levi writing to his father (a rabbi, no less) in 1882:

"Posterity will one day realize that Wagner was a great human being as well as a great artist. Even his attacks on what he calls Judaism in music … sprang from the noblest motives. There is no petty anti-Semitism about him. That is proved by his manner toward me [and other Jewish musicians]."

Noblest motives? That seems like a very big stretch. But in the 130 years since Wagner's death, eminent Jewish musicians, far less naive than Levi must have been, embraced the music wholeheartedly. Mahler, a celebrated Wagner conductor, is just one example.

Critic and librettist Paul Griffiths neatly summed up the whole Wagner matter this way: "For some, his failings of humanity must damn him. For others, his works count as colossal acts of atonement."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

BSO and Wagner

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra marks the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birth with three programs conducted by Marin Alsop.

Act 1 of 'Die Walkure,' featuring soprano Heidi Melton, tenor Brandon Javanovich and bass-baritone Eric Owens, will be performed on a program that includes excerpts from "Tristan und Isolde" and "Die Meistersinger" at 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Feb. 17 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda.

An orchestral synthesis of the Ring Cycle will be performed on a program with Christopher Rouse's Ring-inspired "Der gerettete Alberich" at 8 p.m. April 18, 3 p.m. April 21 at the Meyerhoff.

The BSO's Off the Cuff series presents "Wagner: A Composer Fit for a King," a semi-staged dramatization that includes orchestral excerpts from the Ring Cycle.

For ticket information, call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.

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