Grieg, Pärt, Sibelius
Briefly in Vienna, I popped into the Musikverein to see what was on. I do not believe I have heard the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra since the government nearly shut it down a few years ago. The Orchestra receives funding from a tax on televisions. Even when I am in Vienna, I do not watch television and cannot even get the publicly-funded stations (they do not broadcast terrestrially and I do not have cable, so I can only receive free satellite, for which only one Austrian public channel is partially accessible). So I pay for this. Because public television is outdated, and in Europe has just morphed into commercial television anyway, no one really watches. What makes the television tax palatable in Austria is that so much of it goes to arts funding in general. Nevertheless, they still threatened to disband this orchestra around 2009, until it was saved by public outcry. In the process, it lost its conductor (Bertrand de Billy) and I wonder how many of its musicians. Tonight it sounded like a shell of its former self.
I do not know how often this orchestra performs these days. I do not see it much in the listings, but it could merely be a factor of when I am around. The young German conductor Cornelius Meister, de Billy’s successor, took the podium tonight, and he might just inspire the orchestra less. I would need to hear more before deciding. Tonight’s concert, with music by Edvard Grieg, Arvo Pärt, and Janne Sibelius, would allow the orchestra to demonstrate its musicality. This it did in part, but the theatrical passages got outnumbered by the passages where it simply played the music as written. At times, the orchestra missed cues and sounded ragged around the edges – more so during the Grieg and Sibelius works, although it could have done so during the Pärt as well but no one would have noticed.
Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite #2 and Sibelius’ Symphony #5 framed the program. At times these had inspiration, but somehow the orchestra managed to muddy the acoustics of the Golden Hall in a way I had not realized was possible. I sat in a seat I often sit in, so the blur certainly came from the orchestra and not from the peculiarities of a particular seat. The air remained clear, just the sound slushed through, although it did shine at times.
The piece which made me most curious came in the middle of the concert: Pärt’s Credo for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra (with the Singverein and with Meister at the keyboard). Pärt is a composer I have wanted to get to know for almost thirty years, but for some reason have never gotten around to it. I do not believe I have ever heard Pärt live, I have no recordings of any of his music, and I have only heard works by him on the radio in passing without paying special attention. Perhaps this was not the best Pärt piece to begin with. It had wonderful moments, welding baroque or even polyphonic harmonies onto a 20th-century orchestral palate. Unfortunately, Pärt interrupted these pleasant bits with obnoxious intrusions of sound produced in often gimmicky ways, getting unusual noises out of the instruments or voices. I think I will need to find another piece to begin to explore Pärt again.
After the Pärt piece, Meister performed an encore for solo piano. I did not catch what he announced that it was (his announcement was clearly audible, but not intelligible), nor did I recognize it. However, I do not need to waste much time finding out, since I do not wish to hear this dull and ugly encore again.