Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Mozart, Holst, Williams

The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra could probably play Mozart without a conductor.  At tonight’s concert, they provided an idiomatic reading of the Symphony #41, “Jupiter,” with John Axelrod on the podium.  They probably mostly ignored him and got down to business.

Only a chamber-sized orchestra took the stage for the symphony, which I suppose matched the period in which Mozart wrote it.  However, this was late Mozart, and forward-looking, and does sound better with full orchestral forces.  The smaller sound got a little lost in Salzburg’s Large Festival House.

The full orchestra appeared for the concert’s second half, and this may have made the concert’s first half more clear.  This orchestra is less familiar with Gustav Holst, whose suite The Planets came after the intermission.  The extra instruments got lost, with stray sounds popping up – both the wrong notes and at the wrong times.  The solo horn made a number of disastrous entries.  However, whether these problems derived from the orchestra alone or were the fault of the man on the podium was unclear.

Axelrod was supposedly Leonard Bernstein’s last student, but he clearly was not the best.  Gimmicks do not make up for a lack of talent.  Like Bernstein, Axelrod believes in popularizing music – but Bernstein understood his fundamentals and relied on them.  Axelrod takes pride in being a “crossover artist” with rock.  His pelvic thrusts may have excited Elvis fans, but they lost the musicians who had to interpret their cues.

For Neptune, the last tone poem in the suite, Axelrod had a children’s chorus sing from offstage, their voices projected via speaker system, through which they were also distorted (seemingly intentionally).  This simply did not work, and how Axelrod thought it might make the evening more exciting eluded me.

Holst’s music is nice, but this performance betrayed that this suite is not exactly a series of high quality tone poems, but rather odd disjointed thoughts.  After Mozart’s forward-looking final symphony, the Holst did not hold up.

For an encore (why?), Axelrod led the orchestra in music by John Williams from Star Wars.  One of the kids in the chorus came out to present him with a plastic lightsaber, which he then used to annoint the kid as though he were being dubbed a mediaeval knight by his lord, thus demonstrating that Axelrod had no idea what a lightsaber was.  So much for pop culture.  But the performance did play up Williams’ obvious indebtedness to Holst’s work, the references made quite clear.  So maybe Holst was forward-looking in his way.  And maybe some day we will consider Axelrod forward-looking, although probably not.

Munich Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Richard Strauss

I came into Vienna for the weekend and added a concert to my schedule: the Munich Philharmonic visited the Musikverein.  Semyon Bychkov took the podium, replacing the late Lorin Maazel.  Tonight’s program was an all-Richard Strauss affair, and there may be few orchestras which master his music like this one.  The Munich Philharmonic treated us to a sumptuous sound – something that Maazel, a consumate if unbelievably dull musician – certainly refined.

The concert opened with the tone poem Don Juan, in a fiery and passionate reading (something that Maazel certainly could not have accomplished) – not only did Don Juan seduce the women, but it sounded like he’d also paid a visit to the Venusberg.  This orchestra has a lush sound that draws in the listeners, particularly with acoustics in a hall such as the Musikverein.  Although uniform at times, Bychkov kept the modulations to build overall combined sounds – allowing the mind to imagine the protrayals.  Or, perhaps, the playing left very little for the imagination – this Don Juan may have earned a X rating

The orchestra’s principal horn, Jörg Brückner, was the soloist for Strauss’ second horn concerto.  I heard his first concerto (a youthful work) in May, and now got to follow it up with the second (written near the end of Strauss’ life).  These two concerti do not form part of the common concert repertory.  But the influence of the composer’s virtuoso hornist father continued to rub off, and Strauss knew how to write for this instrument.  The model remained Mozart, like in the earlier concerto, but now he augmented the chromatics.  The horn engaged the whole orchestra, but particularly the woodwinds, in fascinating dialogue and witty repartee, and sent the audience dancing into the intermission.

For the second half of the concert, Ein Heldenleben traced a hero’s life.  Every time I thought an instrument or section deserved a highlight, along came the next performer.  There were no standouts – they were all good.  But wait, maybe there was one: concertmaster Sreten Krstič, who played the violin solos as a country fiddler, provided a level of spontaneity to the already-composed music on the page.  The applause at the concert’s end, although long and hard for everyone, rose several more notches for him.