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Originally published Tuesday, June 25, 2013 at 11:31 AM

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Seattle Symphony ends season with Wagner, Saint-Saëns

Seattle Symphony closes the season with Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony and selections from Saint-Saëns’ rival, Wagner. Concerts are June 27, 29, 30.

Special to The Seattle Times

CONCERT PREVIEW

Seattle Symphony Orchestra

7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $19-$112 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org). Free companion tickets available for children 8-18 when with a paying adult.

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There’s a famous anecdote about a visit between the young Camille Saint-Saëns — at the time a rising Parisian composer and gifted performer — and the German composer he respected so much, Richard Wagner. The story begins with Saint-Saëns picking up Wagner’s unfinished score for “Siegfried,” the third of his four operas constituting “The Ring of the Nibelung.”

As a music critic and teacher, Saint-Saëns had been an early champion of Wagner, especially the latter’s operas “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin.” As with other French composers of his generation, he was and would remain influenced by Wagner’s grand Romantic passions.

With “Siegfried” in hand, Saint-Saëns sat down at Wagner’s piano and sight-read the entire score. Wagner, astonished, proclaimed Saint-Saëns possessed a great musical mind.

Unfortunately, their mutual admiration would not last. In later years, Wagner dismissed Saint-Saëns’ own music as lacking inspiration, while Saint-Saëns attacked Wagner in print as a thinker and dramatist obsessed with “the German preoccupation with going beyond reality.”

Which brings us to Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s final program for June and — except for the “Cirque de la Symphonie” spectacle next month — the current season. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, masterworks by both men will diplomatically appear on the same bill: Saint-Saëns’ 1886 Symphony No. 3 in C minor, also known as the “Organ” Symphony, and selections from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” and “Tristan und Isolde.”

“When you want to do Saint-Saëns and Wagner together, even though they criticized one another all their lives, it’s obvious they respected each other,” says Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, who will conduct.

“We know all the incidents where Saint-Saëns criticized the music of Wagner, but ultimately I find the ‘Organ’ Symphony — the language, the vocabulary of Saint-Saëns — is actually indebted to the music of Wagner.”

Certainly various experts have concluded the same, hearing even in such later works by Saint-Saëns as his 1883 opera “Henry VIII” a measured, even disguised echo of Wagner’s innovations.

Apart from that, Saint-Saëns — once declared by Franz Liszt to be the world’s greatest organist — created in his “Organ” Symphony a work reflecting his fascination with the scientific and technological achievements of Europe’s 19th-century Belle Epoque.

Morlot expects next week’s performance to sound different from the symphony’s 2011 “Organ” concert, though SSO organist Joseph Adam will be playing again. At the time of this interview, rehearsals hadn’t begun.

“Once I get a chance to experience the magnificent organ and the symphony together, we’ll explore on the spot,” he says. “That’s the beauty of music, because every instrument is different. You have to be creative and inventive with what you do with those colors.”

Besides including, for their own splendor, the well-known Prelude and “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” and the Overture and “Venusberg Music” from “Tannhäuser,” Morlot says those works present an opportunity to link the end of the season with the big focus of Seattle Opera on Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, which opens in August.

“It’s a wonderful way to end the season by highlighting the orchestra.”

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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