Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Bernstein, Tschaikowsky, Elgar

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned for a second night in the Musiverein’s Golden Hall, making a bigger splash with the audience than last night: bigger applause devolving to rhythmic clapping and a call for an encore.  To be honest: this orchestra certainly deserved the ovation, but I’m not convinced tonight was better than last.

The first half of the concert had one peculiar piece, Leonard Bernstein‘s Second Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety.”  Bernstein was a far better conductor and intellectual than he was a composer, but this is one of his better compositions.  That does not make it any less pretentious.  Part One was everywhere (as the composer intended), which I suppose is what gives it the sense of anxiety.  But it was a joyous Part One – a musical description of four people getting drunk together, but each lonely and self-absorbed, in a bar, they seemed to be embibing a bit too much and may have actually been rather happy when not mourning their own existence.  Part Two, on the other hand, never seemed to figure out what it wanted to be, shifting musical styles (including a bit of jazz) without settling on anything.  This may have been a bit too weird.  The Orchestra could certainly handle this tricky music with no problem at all – the only one who seemed to be anxious was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the piano soloist (the work is in many ways more piano concerto than symphony), whose mouth remained agape and whose eye stared up at Nézet-Séguin with a look of utter fear.  Thibaudet appears to have told his barber to cut his hair to match Bernstein’s own hairstyle, and there was a passing similarity, so perhaps this was indeed the pianist channeling the composer’s spirit.

For the second half of the concert, the Orchestra pulled out Tschaikowsky‘s Fourth Symphony.  His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are performed far too often.  They are good music, but it’s just hard to say anything new.  This Orchestra’s thrilling Tschaikowsky Fifth in Dresden in 2015, for example, still rings in my ears – it was that good.  Tonight’s Fourth… wonderful performance, but I heard nothing I haven’t heard before.  So that was a bit disappointing.

But yes it was a wonderful performance, and the audience appreciated it maybe more than I did.  The solo bows elicited roars (particularly for the principal oboist, Richard Woodhams, who is retiring at the end of this tour, whose solo bow inspired massive foot thumping across the hall).  So the orchestra gave us an orchestration of Edward Elgar‘s Liebesgruß to show off its lush string sound, as an encore.

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Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms, Schumann, Strauss

It’s always wonderful to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour performing in a proper hall and not the dull box they have in the Kimmel Center.  Tonight, they hit the Musikverein for the first of a two-night set with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.

The second half of the concert was spectacular, featuring the best performance of Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony I have ever heard – a mix of mystery, wistfullness, and outright joy.  This was followed by Richard Strauss‘ tone poem Don Juan, in an interpretation which emphasized the individual virtuosic lines.  Not sure where to begin on this, but maybe the duet between the oboe and clarinet was most special.  Or was it the horn solos?  Or the violin?  Or… or…  From my seat I had a good view of Nézet-Séguin, and watched him cajole the Orchestra emotionally, and then heard the immediate response.  These forces make music so well together.

This intimacy was also on show for the concert’s first half, where they were joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Brahms first piano concerto.  I am afraid not even the Philadelphia Orchestra can rescue that Brahms concerto, although it was a valiant effort.  The playing sounded great, but there was just not much to work with (or too much – an hour of musical ideas that weren’t all bad but Brahms was not creative enough to know what to do with them).  According to the program notes, Bruckner was a fan of the main theme of the first movement (“Siehst, das is a Symphoniethema!” – “You see, that is a symphony theme!” he apparently declared to a student).  Indeed, there was something there, and if it had been a Bruckner symphony we would have found ourselves dreaming in a gothic cathedral he would have built from it.  But it was a Brahms piano concerto, so all he could do with it was plant a vegetable garden for the monks.  Maybe they were good vegetables, and maybe Grimaud, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians made good tour guides, but I’d rather admire Bruckner’s cathedral than wander around in Brahms’ monastery farm.

The concert had very high security (indeed, I have never seen so much security for anything in Austria, including when I attended a reception hosted by the President last Fall with many other dignitaries from Austria and neighboring countries in the room).  Armed police roamed everywhere (outside and inside the building), as did ubiquitous Israeli close protection teams.  There were also a bunch of huge men who looked like nightclub bouncers stationed around the hall (apparently recommended by the Israelis).

This all had to do with the fact that at the end of the Orchestra’s European tour tomorrow, they head off to tour Israel, and the anti-Semites are protesting everywhere.  The Orchestra started its tour in Belgium, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe today (I make no excuses for Austria, its failure to address its history, and the fact that unrepentent German nationalists with an arguably classical national socialist political agenda are sitting in the current government – but Austria is actually pretty tame, which is frightening).  So in Brussels the Orchestra’s concert was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Semitic protestors, which led the Orchestra to contact the Israelis for advice and the host cities on the rest of the European tour for high alerts.  At the start of tonight’s concert, a Musikverein representative came on stage to announce that if there were a protest, then the Orchestra would stop playing and walk off the stage, and return to start the concert over after the protest ended; so, since the Orchestra believes in the right to free speech, it was requested that if anyone in the audience wanted to protest, that they do so now before the concert began.  There was a loud applause for the announcement, but no protest.

And there was certainly no protest about the concert itself.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Machover

I would not normally post a review of a rehearsal, particularly one for a world premiere performance where the orchestra and composer were still fine-tuning ahead of the first concert.  But for this rehearsal, I have decided to make an exception (albeit delaying the public posting for a day until after the world premiere has taken place).  This is because I realized I am not actually reviewing the performance.

Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices is about to have its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in a three-concert set in Philadelphia this week and then at Carnegie Hall in New York next week (along with works by Bernstein and Mussorgsky, not rehearsed this evening).

On an intellectual level, I’m glad I went.  On a musical level, there’s nothing to say.  It’s an especially awful piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra to bring to Carnegie Hall – a Philadelphia audience might have fun with some of the inside jokes and immediate cultural references, but New Yorkers will lose that dimension, exposing that there is nothing else there.

Machover crowd-sourced his thing-a-ma-bobby.  He cobbled the inane text (partly sung, partly pre-recorded voices from around the city played over speakers) together from various sources, including on-the-street interviews (or in one case an interview with a short-order cook making a cheese steak).  Some of it came from snippets of documents like the US Constitution (written in Philadelphia).  The text contained juxtaposed words or phrases often presenting inside jokes; recent events ranging from the Pope’s visit that took place while Machover had begun to work on this, to the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl earlier this year complete with the play-by-play announcer’s calling of the final play of that game; and some truly dreadful poetry including one section that began: “My house is full of black people.”

At a pre-rehearsal discussion, Machover answered an audience member’s question about what will happen with this piece after this initial set of concerts, explaining that Haydn had written his London symphonies and they became part of the standard repertory. But Haydn’s “London” symphonies got the name because he wrote a set of them there (or at least for premieres there), not because they have anything specifically to do with London ranging from insider knowledge to recent (from 200 years ago) football championships. Haydn just wrote good music.

But intellectually, learning how Machover constructed this work (wandering around Philadelphia recording people and sounds, while getting to know the city – he himself is not from Philadelphia), and then hearing a full (final) rehearsal in which the composer and Nézet-Séguin had to make finishing touches and to see how to make it function in real life, was worth the several hours I spent in the Kimmel Center.  As a native Philadelphian, I also had fun with parts of the text.

Four different choral groups, apparently mostly drawn from a good selection of inner-city kids, sang the words.  For them, this was an opportunity to rehearse with the best orchestra in the United States and under one of the best conductors of the 40-ish generation, and then to perform live at New York’s historic Carnegie Hall (and of course at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, an undistinguished venue but likely exciting for these kids).  This was heartening to see.  What a great experience for these kids – and maybe they’ll even stick around for some real music.

Oh, yes… the music.  It was mostly tonal, and required performance on instruments (including voice) despite many voice-overs, but I’m not sure it was music.  It had no discernable structure or direction (not just a factor of the strange text, but a fundamental problem with the construction itself).

What did it really remind me of?  I attended a bizarrely experimental elementary school in Philadelphia.  On a typical day, we walked up and down the streets of this city exploring different neighborhoods (and once a week they bussed us city kids out to a working farm).  We had no formal classes – maybe the closest we came to a recognizable class period was music, which they taught us using the educational system developed by Carl Orff.  I could easily see my elementary school collaboratively writing this piece – both the words and music – and then performing it for our parents on our recorders and xylophones (and singing along) in the school’s “Multi-Purpose Room.”  Our parents would have had fun (or at least would have pretended to).  And then after that performance there would never – ever – be any reason to perform our piece again.

Philadelphia Voices should share the same fate.   Creative?  Sure.  But place- and time-specific, and otherwise with nothing of substance.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart

Salzburg’s Mozarteum Foundation runs an annual Mozart Week Festival overlapping the anniversary of the composer’s birthday (27 January 1756).  Quite oddly, these are the most expensive tickets of the year in Salzburg – even more than the Salzburg Festival.  It’s a great mystery why.

I’ve skipped it the last two years as it is extremely hard to justify the prices, but last Summer while renewing my Mozarteum subscription series tickets (quite reasonably priced), I decided to pick up relatively cheaper-end seats for three concerts for this Winter’s Mozart Week while they were still available.  By stroke of bad luck, I now have to go on a last-minute work trip this weekend and will miss two of the concerts (so gave my tickets back to the box office tonight for re-sale), leaving me with only tonight’s concert (and next year’s Mozart Week schedule, just released, looks especially uninteresting, so I won’t be going back any time soon).

The programs mix about 50% or more Mozart with some other themes (this year includes a lot of Haydn).  That’s probably a bit more Mozart than my diet can take, and tonight’s concert was 100% Mozart, but he’s a fun if highly over-rated composer, so I decided to enjoy.  The forces assembled tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival House – the Vienna Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin – promised to make the performances dynamic, and they did not disappoint.

The concert included Symphonies #39 and #40, composed back-to-back but in different styles, which Nézet-Séguin and the Philharmoniker mastered.  For #39, they captured Mozart’s quirky humor, the sudden shifts and surprises, unexpected pauses and changes in direction.  #40 is a bit more serious, and Nézet-Séguin emphasized the thick harmonies hiding under the melodies, giving this work perhaps even more weight than it normally has.

In between the symphonies we were supposed to have a selection of Mozart’s songs performed by Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón (songs not heard so often, which had made this concert particularly appealing to me).  Unfortunately, Villazón came in to rehearse earlier today sick and coughing heavily, so was a late cancelation.  Brazilian pianist Maria João Pines, in town for a concert last night, was on her way to the airport when the Mozarteum called her up and asked her to skip her flight and perform tonight as well.  She did a standard work from the repertory – Piano Concerto #23.  Her playing was workmanlike, lacking sparkle or humor.  About all I can say regarding the others on stage: the orchestra accompanied her.  Nothing particularly wrong with anything, indeed beautiful music, but perhaps paradigmatic of Mozart himself on one of those days when he just did not feel like playing any jokes.  And Mozart’s music without Mozart’s humor is… perfectly nice for a lazy weekend morning, but maybe not for an evening concert with the fashionably overdressed crowd.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Martinů, Bruckner

A late start tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall: 9 p.m. seems like an appropriate time to construct a church service in a concert hall, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Vienna Philharmonic doing the construction.

The concert opened with Bohuslav Martinů’Frescos of Piero della Francesca, a work I did not previously know. Martinů got his inspiration on vacation in Arezzo, where he saw these paintings in a church. To be entirely honest, I could not quite connect Martinů’s modern music (the work had its premiere by the Philharmoniker in Salzburg at the 1956 Festival) with the 15th-century frescos. But as pure music, it worked, with that composer’s wonderful juxtapositions.

They then skipped the intermission completely and went directly to the second work on the program, which gave Martinů yet more juxtaposition. The Bavarian Radio Chorus joined a smaller orchestra for Bruckner’s Mass #3. Having put up the paintings in the church, I suppose they now had to fill the room with mass.

In 1867, Bruckner’s doctor told him to stay away from music – it was driving him insane. Thankfully, Bruckner listened to God instead of to his doctor. He wrote Mass #3 and then moved to Vienna full time to teach counterpoint at the conservatory.

This mass is a bridge work. The insane church organist subsequently wrote mostly orchestral music, constructing his cathedrals of sound. But this was a work he meant to have performed in a church (unlike Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wednesday night’s work, to which it was immediately compared in scale when it was first performed). The premiere indeed took place in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche (in the Hofburg) and remains frequently performed as a mass in Austrian churches and cathedrals (possibly more often than it appears in the world’s concert halls).

Unlike Harnoncourt’s muffled Missa Solemnis on Wednesday, Nézet-Séguin made use of his forces to fill the hall brightly. Although relatively-early Bruckner (in terms of major compositional output), the mass connected Bruckner’s church organist background with some of the larger structures he would create after moving to Vienna. The mass works both as church music and as a dramatic concert work. But the texts are clear, and the devout Bruckner clearly believed in them. This piece marked his transition from his time serving the Church to his new world serving Humanity.

Soloists Dorothea RöschmannKaren CargillChistian Elsner, and Franz-Josef Selig sang their lines clearly. But this is not a work highlighting the soloists. There is drama in the text, but it is in the service of the Lord.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Konzerthaus Berlin

Muhly, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

Tonight the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin appeared at the Berlin Konzerthaus with a rather more-challenging program. The Berlin Konzerthaus is famous for its acoustics, but from tonight’s observation this praise is not deserved. Maybe it got this reputation only in comparison with the other concert hall in town, the Philharmonie, which I discovered last night is truly awful. It is also clear that the house management knows something is wrong with the acoustics, as plexiglass plates have been installed over the orchestra to deflect the sound (either that, or to keep unruly Berliners in the side balconies from spitting on the orchestra). Nine additional large plexiglass dishes hung near the ceiling to try to get the sound to do something (or were they UFOs hovering up there to hear the Philadelphians?). In short, the acoustics are not bad but nothing special and the house clearly knows this.

However, because the acoustics were more straightforward, I did get a better chance to hear Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly that I heard for the first time two nights ago. While the Orchestra did need that piece in Dresden to understand the acoustical bounces of that hall (which, as I noted, had better acoustics but the bounces off the walls took getting used to), tonight they could jump right in and it came across more clearly and somewhat less crazy than it sounded on Sunday. Nevertheless, although the piece changed its musical style, it did not go anywhere, and the common thread throughout could not sustain it for the full length. If Muhly edits it down to something shorter, it may stand.

Works by Schostakowitsch and Rachmaninov demostrated what composers with something to say can achieve despite wild rhythms and modern sounds – Muhly is not in their league.

From Schostakowitsch, we got the First Violin Concerto, with the solos played defiantly by Lisa Batiashvili. Batiashvili exhibited a warm, deep tone, while remaining crisp. The Schostakowitsch concerto allows for the violin to play along with the orchestra but periodically change its tune and go its own individual way, still hewing closely to the orchestra, as if to show that an individual can preserve an identity in the face of oppression and demands for conformity. But then, even those bets were off, as the violin solo turned into a full-out cadenzaof enormous complexity. Batiashvili made this into a real tour-de-force. Did Schostakowitsch (who wrote the piece for David Oistrakh) really expect human violinists could play this? Batiashvili did. And when the cadenza finished, the orchestra joined back in at a level unheard before. The violin individualist had freed the masses.

After a standing ovation, Nézet-Séguin sat down at the piano on the side of the stage, and Batiashvili joined him for a Tschaikowsky romance, that lowered the tension going into the break. But after the intermission, the gloves came off again for a crazy Rachmaninov Third Symphony. Although it got its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra have decided to champion it, it really is not one of the composer’s better works. But if anyone can do it, then this orchestra will at least make the case. The concert ended with another encore designed to bring down the tension: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, highlighting the violins and woodwinds. Wonderful playing.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Semperoper (Dresden)

Muhly, Grieg, Chopin, Tschaikowsky

The last time I visited Dresden, the city consisted of big empty areas with periodic piles of rubble. Presumably, the communists had wanted to remind everyone of what British and American bombers had done to the city in the Second World War, quite ignoring the ravages that Russia had inflicted. The city center remained virutally empty (I couldn’t even find a hotel, so only stayed for a day from an early morning arrival by train to a night train back out). The wrecked core was surrounded by hideous apartment blocks. In the midst, the Semperoper building had been rebuilt, but (as I was told tonight) only the exterior.

Today, I arrived in Dresden to find it unrecognizable. First of all, there is a city here. Some neighborhoods have modern buildings, while the core of the center has been rebuilt to look like it did before the War. Tourists throng the streets. City residents bask on the grassy lawns and beaches which appeared on the river banks. And the Semperoper, too, has reopened.

The Philadelphia Orchestra tested the hall tonight. The acoustics were clear, if possibly too radiant. The sound not only approached me from the stage, but from behind as well. The Orchestra said they were not always sure how the music was bouncing off the walls and coming back to them, and which to play with. So they guessed.

Their guesses were good beyond belief. Is this one of the top twenty orchestras in the world? Top ten? Top five? They certainly made a case for themselves tonight.

The concert opened with Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly, which had its world premiere by this orchestra earlier in the month. He says he does not write in any particular style, just music he would enjoy listening too. He has peripatetic tastes, although the fact that he composes music to match his tastes and not to shock makes him a big improvement on many contemporary composers. I’m not sure what original he had to say – Charles Ives said many of these things much better 100 years ago. But I’ll have another chance to hear this work on Tuesday and maybe I’ll find something. In the meantime, it gave the orchestra a good warm-up and a chance to test the acoustics in the hall before the other works.

There followed a passionate reading of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Jan Lisiecki. The Canadian Lisiecki, all of 20 years old, had an obvious rapport with his countryman, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and together they crafted magic with the orchestra. Lisiecki gave us a encore, of a Chopin Nocturn – the posthumous one famously played by Wladislaw Szpilman live on Polish radio at the time the Germans invaded, a performance he was therefore unable to complete for six years and unfathomable hardship. Lisiecki’s reading was pensive, moving, and restrained.

If the Grieg concerto was passionate, Piotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #5 was orgasmic. Nézet-Séguin nourished the dialogue among the instruments (and it certainly helps when every instrument in the dialogue is world-class and able to ascribe new meanings to well-heard phrases), and with a lilt here, an abrupt tempo change there, and still another tense moment relieved by wildness, he took Tschaikowsky’s pent-up romanticism and set it loose in the hall. If this interpretation had become any more intense, Tschaikowsky’s music would have morphed into Scriabin. I think I now understand how Scriabin, who did not come to the Moscow Conservatory until long after Tschaikowsky had stopped teaching there, could emerge from the same music school. The Tschaikowsky Fifth is a warhorse, all too often performed, but tonight I heard something I have never heard before.

The Dresden audience gave the orchestra a standing ovation. They pounded the floor with their feet. Curtain call after curtain call ensued, until Nézet-Séguin silenced the crowd and said thank you. But an encore was not forthcoming. The orchestra looked exhausted – and an 8:00 p.m. start time had not helped (concert finished close to 10:30, even without the encore) for a long European tour. The other oddity, of course, with such a start time is that restaurants in Dresden were mostly closed or had stopped serving by the time the concert ended. Very odd to schedule a late start time in a city that does not stay open especially late.