Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Schloß Leopoldskron (Salzburg)

Mozart, Strauss, Brahms, Kreisler

Our annual board of directors weekend gave us the opportunity for two quite different classical chamber music concerts on Sunday (we also had a jazz trio performing rearranged renditions of classical works on Saturday – but I don’t feel like I can write a meaningful review of jazz, even classically-inspired jazz; I will also omit a public review of the afternoon classical chamber concert, as I do not publicly review all of the private concerts we host, and that particular concert resulted from a peculiar request from a specific donor).

For the Sunday matinée, three members of the Vienna Philharmonic (accompanied by one of their wives, on piano) came to our magical palace, Schloß Leopoldskron. They selected the first allegro movement from each of the piano quartet #1 in E-flat by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart and of the piano quartet in c by Richard Strauss, and the complete piano quartet #1 in g by Johannes Brahms (and a miniature, “Little Vienna March” by Fritz Kreisler, as an encore). I got to introduce the concert.

The selection of works by Mozart and Strauss was obvious: both had themselves performed in Schloß Leopoldskron. Prince Archbishop Leopold von Firmian, who built Leopoldskron, was the patron of Mozart’s father (also Leopold), and the Archbishop’s son (officially “nephew” since Catholic archbishops should technically not have sons), the second owner of the palace, was an early patron of the young Wolfgang. A century and a half later, Max Reinhardt owned the palace and founded the Salzburg Festival in one of its rooms, together with a small group of his good friends, including Strauss, a frequent guest.

However, as Mozart did not compose piano quartets before he left Salzburg, and Strauss did not compose any after he started visiting, we ended up with late Mozart and early Strauss, neither from their Salzburg periods. Mozart was at his pinnacle for this work, and Strauss still experimental on his way up, but the musicians deftly produced two very distinct styles.

The excitement continued for the Brahms. Neither this work nor this composer had any special meaning – it was simply something they enjoyed playing. While Brahms can be exceptionally dull, this piece – or at least this performance – showed non-stop excitement (aided perhaps by unexpected roaring thunder outside). The tradition-bound Brahms demonstrated that he could write with passion if he broke with tradition – he was not incapable of originality, just generally afraid of it. This piece, in scoring, pacing, and self-referential variations skipping among all four movements was original. To prepare for the concert, I had listened to several versions of this work on line, and none excited me – presumably only the Vienna Philharmonic has musicians capable of making this piece sound quite so special.

Christoph von Dohnányi once famously explained that “the Viennese never give technique a priority. They always try to achieve the musical sense, and by doing this they actually go as far as they can in a technical respect. But they would never sacrifice natural music-making to technical necessities.” (Music director in Cleveland at the time he made those comments, Dohnányi contrasted the Philharmonic with his own orchestra, which he described as giving technically perfect performances of music, and so his greatest frustration in Cleveland was trying to get his orchestra to perform more like the Vienna Philharmonic).  The Philharmonic, I quipped, may be the Salzburg Global Seminar of orchestras.

Orchestra Giovanile di Greve in Chianti Toscana, Schloß Leopoldskron (Salzburg)

Elgar, Mendelssohn, Piazzola

 

The Youth Orchestra of Greve in Chianti made its second-annual appearance for a lunchtime concert at my office in Schloß Leopoldskron under its director Luca Rinaldi.  This is becoming a wonderful little tradition.

This year they decided to have most of the musicians (not the celli and bases) play standing up.  This succeeded in opening up the sound, especially as the Great Hall usually hosts smaller chamber groups but can be overwhelmed by orchestras of this size.  In this case, standing up it worked – and also made the performance even more lively.

The program included the Seranade for Strings by Edward Elgar, dipped back chronologically to  Felix Mendelssohn‘s Symphony for Strings #10, and then concluded with Astor Piazzolla‘s Libertango.  That last piece may have had a swing to it, but musically paled compared to the other two works.  Indeed, these kids captured the sophistication but light-hearted Elgar and Mendelssohn nicely.

I had not thought to review last year’s performance on this blog (we do host a lot of informal chamber concerts, and it does not make sense to comment on them all), but this year’s rose to a standard worthy of a flag.

Stadler Quartet and Ariane Haering, Schloß Leopoldskron

Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ravel, Webern, Lehár

Tonight I got to play the role of Max Reinhardt and organize and present a concert in the Great Hall of Schloss Leopoldskron for an invitation-only audience of international dignitaries.  The concert took place as part of the program “1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future” on the state of international diplomacy.  I programmed only pieces composed in 1814 and 1914, for which I brought in Salzburg’s leading string quartet, the Stadler Quartet (headed by the Mozarteum’s concertmaster Frank Stadler) and top piano soloist, the Swiss-born Ariane Haering.

The first two pieces on the program, from 1814, were private works never intended for public performance, which added to the sense of intimacy.  Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the Piano Sonata in e-minor, op. 90, for his friend Moritz von Lichnowsky, a Silesian aristocrat having an affair with an opera singer whom he later married (hence one of the movements is labeled to be performed in a “singable manner” – which Haering certainly did).  Franz Schubert’s String Quartet #8, composed in only eight days while Schubert was still only 17 years old, tested the composer’s many talents to reflect his astonishing development, although he never decided to publish the work during his lifetime.  The Stadler Quartet’s performance made the work sound very mature.

Moving along to 1914, the music became less harmonious.  Igor Stravinsky‘s friends considered his Three Pieces for String Quartet to be unfinished fragments.  He called them “abstract music” and published them anyway.  These works were fun – as written and as performed with a smirk.

Maurice Ravel wrote to his friend Stravinsky that he had rushed the composition of his Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, because he wanted to enlist in the French Army and feared the Great War would end before he had a chance to fight if he did not hurry up and finish.  So he rushed it and ran to enlist, and the senseless War lasted four more horrible years.  Tonight we programed the third movement, Passacaille (Très Large), as a slow and dancing contrast to the Stravinsky work, with sumptuous playing by these musicians.

The Ravel movement also contrasted with the final programmed work, Anton von Webern’s Three Small Pieces for Cello and Piano.  Webern considered these a “distillation of music” and all three pieces together lasted less than two minutes.  At around the time he wrote these, Webern was also my grandmother’s music theory teacher in Vienna, so I have a particular soft spot for him.  Webern’s music was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate,” but he survived the Second World War only to be shot mistakenly by an American soldier in 1945 while offering a light to another American soldier, who thus perpetuated an American stereotype.

Although charming, Webern’s work was not going to send our guests humming into dinner.  So after poking around for something suitable, Frank Stadler and I settled on an arrangement for string quartet of the Weibermarsch from Ferenc Lehár’s Lustige Witwe.  Although not composed in 1914 (it was written in 1905), the operetta did reflect the mood before the First World War, and created a bit of a scandal by parodying the life of Crown Prince Danilo of Montenegro, who preferred the brothels in Paris to his homeland.  This march got feet tapping: “Yes, the study of women is hard!”

This was quite a fun concert to put together.  I also personally learned a lot researching the pieces, since chamber music is not my specialty, and these particular works are anyway not often performed.  I think the concert had a good balance and it certainly had top-of-the-line performers who could pull it off.  In fact, the Stadler Quartet specializes in contemporary music, and could add some 2014 pieces to the mix to fill out an entire program of 1814-1914-2014.  I decided against anything that contemporary, and did not want to worry about copyright issues, but could easily foresee a third section of this program developing and appearing in a concert nearby later this year.

Ensemble 013, Schloß Leopoldskron

new incidental music for Jedermann

I now work in Schloss Leopoldskron, former home to Europe’s leading impressario Max Reinhardt (from 1918, when he purchased it, until 1938, when the Nazis stole it).  Keeping his traditions alive, we schedule private concerts in the Great Hall (living room) of the Palace on most weeks.  Generally we invite performers from Salzburg’s Mozarteum conservatory – quite frequently a solo pianist.  While I will not review all of these, some concerts are worth special note.  Tonight we invited Ensemble 013 to perform new incidental music to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s drama Jedermann.

Reinhardt, Hofmannsthal, and Richard Strauss together founded the Salzburg Festival in this very palace in 1920.  Reinhardt made Jedermann the cornerstone of the first Festival that year, and the cult play has been performed at the Festival every year since (the Festival literature makes a point that this tradition has been maintained unbroken every year, although I somehow find it hard to believe that the Nazis would have allowed the performance of a play by a Jewish author between 1938, after the annexation of Austria, until the 1945 Festival which would have taken place after the liberation).

2013 saw a new production of Jedermann at the Festival.  Ensemble 013, the stage orchestra for this production, performed all new music composed by members of the Ensemble, often inspired by traditional Balkan music.  Tonight, Ensemble 013 played several of these incidental pieces, as well as other original works in a similar style.  The atmosphere in Reinhardt’s palace provided inspiration, with the right combination of tradition and novelty.

The acoustics in the Great Hall usually serve chamber music well, but less so larger groups.  Although Ensemble 013 is a small group, its combination of winds and percussion in addition to strings and keyboard, as well as the Balkan beats, proved more rambunctious than this room generally experiences.  Nevertheless, the sound worked.  So many strands came together.  The music came home, as it were.