Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein


The world’s best orchestra. The leading conductor of his generation. A concert hall with some of the best acoustics anywhere. And Mahler’s Third Symphony.

I unfortunately had to skip an unusual chamber concert last weekend that I had been looking forward to. I made it up to myself by snagging a late-returned ticket for the sold-out subscription concert of the Vienna Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein, always an event. No one left the hall disappointed.

Jansons took the first movement somewhat more slowly than normal, but he gave it tension and suspense throughout: even though we knew how this would end, the audience hung on every note. Jansons and the Philharmoniker know every nuance of this hall, and used them, letting the sounds waft gently. Mahler’s description of nature showed that this is a solid but fragile planet. The birds chirp, the lake shimmers, the mountains soar, but it is all quite intricate as Mahler observed it from his summer hut. The concertmaster gave sweet solo lines, mingling with the winds. The brass provided majesty and the percussion a driving force.

The orchestral sound got complex, but never became too big. By the fourth movement, Argentinian mezzo Bernarda Fink gave a bold reading of Nietzsche, while the orchestra continued to simmer underneath, before the chorus of Vienna Choir Boys and the women of the Singverein joined her to ring in the fifth movement. Never overbearing, these voices uttered their words distinctly, but the meaning came almost understated in the music. Listen closely and hear the world.

For the opening of the Finale, despite the huge orchestral forces arrayed on stage, Jansons made them sound almost as a chamber orchestra. The two choirs remained standing for several minutes into this non-choral movement, to observe the world bloom. Gradually the orchestra filled the hall with increasing sound. The choirs sat down. The music stood up. And when it finished, the audience provided an additional ten minutes of applause.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)



The most excellent Andrís Nelsons uncovered the Holy Grail in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall this evening, as he brought the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to Vienna on his farewell tour with that orchestra before moving full-time to Boston. On the program, the Prelude to Act I and the entire Act III of Wagner’Parsifal.

Nelsons did not disappoint, providing a dramatic reading for the unstaged concert performance. On one hand, he had to make up for the lack of staging by accentuating the playing – on the other hand, the opera is low-action and the music provides the drama anyway, so he did not resort to gimmicks, just clear emphases to indicate that he understood well the operatic scenes he conducted.

For soloists, he was especially blessed with German baritone Georg Zeppenfeld portraying Gurnemanz. Zeppenfeld had a big, round voice, warmly portraying the holy monk-knight, a sympathetic character for Parsifal to meet as he wandered back into the Grail Kingdom. Unfortunately, the German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt who sang Parsifal, did not make it up to snuff. He spent the first scene trying to sing on key – never quite figuring it out. By the second scene, he had finally come into tune with the orchestra, but he nevertheless will never be confused with a Heldentenor. It’s not that he had a small voice, but – to be blunt – he sounded like a wimp. No bold sounds emerged from his mouth. No drama either (unless you count the anxiety of waiting to hear if he would ever sing on key). As Amfortas, British baritone James Rutherford fell somewhere in the middle. At least he was on key and his voice projected through the hall, but he also lacked the dramatic narrative that Nelsons and the Birminghamers (and Zeppenfeld) had pushed.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will miss Nelsons. I’m not aware that they have managed to name a successor to Nelsons and the program identified no one. But they sound mostly in order, with the ragged edges likely not from a lack of good leadership from the podium but rather just that this is, after all, only a provincial orchestra. The strings somehow managed to sound nasal.

Salzburger Landestheater

Mahmoud, Tahrir

The world premiere of Tahrir, an opera by Hossam Mahmoud, an Egyptian composer based in Salzburg (and a Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar), took place at the Salzburg Landestheater while I was on my way back from Odessa last month, but I fortunately managed to catch the production tonight. Mahmoud, who wrote the libretto (in German) as well as the music, produced a powerful drama in all respects, inspired by the Egyptian spring uprising and its aftermath.

As a music student, Mahmoud studied both the oud and the viola, and his musical idiom mixes classical Arabic music with classical western form. For this opera, the mix proved especially atmospheric and otherworldly. He described the plot as a “hallucination,” so the action and the character development were both minimal – the music drove the meaning. Staging was also minimal, with few props and a movie screen in the back of the stage which presented a series of images, including film footage of the Egyptian uprising. This approach worked much better than a realistic one, because the drama happens less on stage than between the sung lines.

The central character, the ghost of a protester whom the regime had tortured to death, lurks until his grieving mother realizes that the regime’s official story (that her son had been run over by a car) is false, and she takes up his cause to inspire the people and to allow her son’s soul to be released to heaven. The moment it became clear that the official story was a lie, the music turned the knife just as the powerful moment at the end of the prologue to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, when the news comes back that – despite earlier lies – Tove, too, has been murdered.

The singing lines proved difficult for the cast, both in their oscilating volumes and in the music itself which did not quite stick to western tones. As the murdered son, Ilker Arcayürek sometimes slipped from singing to screaming.  Giulio Alvise Caselli, as the duplicitous politician, mastered his lines (the character was not sympathetic but the music also did not characterize him as evil) with bold and clear voice. The two lead female roles, Frances Pappas as the dead man’s mother and Laura Nicorescu as the politician’s young wife, acted out their roles with full emotion, understated but dramatic in the music.

The Landestheater’s young (20-something) and dynamic Lithuanian music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, did an unbelievable job keeping the complex strands linked and in time. This was especially so because the orchestra members were scattered all over the stage, in loges, and on the upper balcony; the stage was also built out over the orchestra pit and the front rows of the auditorium. Gražinytė-Tyla stood on the stage itself, on the far left, surveying it all and leading the performance with her sleeves rolled up and big dramatic arms shaping the difficult score like clay. Second only to composer Mahmoud, she was the star tonight.