I woke up early this Sunday morning for a concert of the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the amateur house orchestra of the Musikverein. I used to attend their concerts periodically, but do not seem to have been in Vienna recently when they were playing, until this morning. This was probably the best I have heard them sound. Robert Zelzer, their music director, conducted, 25 years to the day after he made his debut with this orchestra.
It is fair to say I am sick of Mozart, who is over-performed (and even more so in Salzburg, where I have been based for almost five years). That said, Mozart is pleasant to wake up to on a Sunday morning, and I also suppose I don’t mind hearing a work I did not previously know. This morning’s offering was his Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and Orchestra. Mozart wrote this in Paris for four touring musicians he knew from Mannheim (the clarinet part was originally for flute), but they ended up not playing it and the piece languished in an archive until being discovered 200 years later. Typically Mozartian, the music danced playfully for thirty minutes. The team of soloists (Adelheid Bosch, oboe; Christoph Zimper, clarinet; Peter Dorfmayr, horn; and Max Feyertag, bassoon) handled the tricky phrases effortlessly, while Zelzer and the orchestra provided a strong continuo. A good start to the day.
Zelzer’s reading of Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony was in general a pretty standard interpretation, which is fine (especially with an amateur orchestra which has not – by my listening in previous years – managed to have the fullness of sound for Bruckner. But today they did. This was a sorrowful reading of Bruckner’s final, unfinished, work… but just as we felt the sadness, along came a bit of the Mozartian cheer in the final movement, where the orchestra almost began to dance again. Well done.
A Sunday matinee in the Musikverein with amateur ensembles: first the Vienna Academic Wind Orchestra performing music by American composer David Maslanka, and then the Musikverein’s house orchestra – the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna – with Schostakowitsch’s 5th Symphony.
This was the first performance ever of a work by Maslanka in the Musikverein: today, his Symphony #8 for winds and percussion, composed in 2008. The program notes indicated he wanted to show a positive outlook despite all the problems in the world, to give hope that mankind will go on. The three-movement symphony opened with evocative and pensive music, which to me was evocative of or even derivative from the opera Lela by 20th-Century Georgian composer Revaz Laghidze. Did Maslanka know this opera? Did he hope American listeners would not know it? As the movement went on, I caught glimpses of Rachmaninov’s Three Russian Songs for chorus and orchestra. Since I do know these works, I felt rather disconcerted. The second movement was a fantasy based on the hymn “Jesu meine Freude,” representing prayer to overcome the difficulties. The final movement took the themes from the first movement but spun them positively and ultimately triumphantly. On the whole, the symphony was pleasant, and the musicians played well under the direction of conductor Andreas Simbeni. But perhaps I missed the drama in the words (here without chorus) of Rachmaninov and Laghidze; or perhaps the scoring for a wind ensemble was on its own a tad overbearing.
After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. I have heard this symphony already twice before this year, with the version by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov in the Musikverein being a special highlight. So it would be unfair to make a direct comparison. That said, under the baton of Robert Zelzer, the orchestra this morning held its own. They understood the meaning of the work, although perhaps not bringing out the extreme emotions the Petersburgers did. Still, the playing remained idiomatic and well-formed, particularly in the first movement, which Zelzer took at a slightly slower pace than usual. Indeed, the orchestra sounded good for today (indeed more proficient than the professional orchestra from Berlin – the Konzerthausorchester – which I heard perform this work in in Salzburg in February).
Haydn, Die Schöpfung
For this year’s 200th anniversary of the Society of Friends of Music, extra concerts have made their way into the program. Tonight, the Society’s house amateur orchestra (the Orchesterverein) put on Haydn’s Creation. This is a work which, despite its huge dimensions, makes for a better match for this group than some of the pieces I have heard them perform in the past. Indeed, they play very well for amateurs, but can be overmatched by the likes of Bruckner. Despite some rough edges, they played a spectacular Haydn. This was the best I have ever heard them.
They were helped by the house chorus (yes, the Singverein) in full voice, and three outstanding soloists: Cornelia Horak (soprano), Alexander Kaimbacher (tenor), and Wolfgang Babrnkl (bass), three Austrian singers with dramatic and pleasant voices, the two men coming out of the Staatsoper’s ensemble. Robert Zelzer took his customary place on the podium, and knew exactly what to do to create the world with Haydn’s music.
Haydn produced this oratorio very much inspired by Händel, whose music he had fallen for during his spell in London. The text was, in fact, originally written for – but not ultimately set by – Händel, so Haydn saw himself as picking up his predecessor’s work. But to write a setting of the creation of the world required innovation in tone painting, of the sort that may have become routine in the 19th century but was still not done in 1798. The listener would do well to hear Haydn’s work in that context: for his time, Haydn was an innovator, and took music to another level in this work. Tonight’s performance understood the idiom.
The work has three parts: the first covers the first four days of creation, the second covers the fifth and sixth days, and the third has music for Adam and Eve to sing in paradise. The third part comes across as more of a set piece, a product of 18th-century convention. It contains none of the drama of the first two parts (it does not include the snake or the expulsion, just Adam and Eve crooning on how wonderful paradise is), and provides little opportunity for the tone color that made this work so innovative for its day. Zelzer chose to have the first two parts run uninterrupted and then performed the third part after the intermission, which made for a let down. After creating the heaven and earth in six days during the first two parts, Haydn should certainly have rested after the sixth day.
Another amateur night in the Musikverein.
The Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the Musikverein’s house amateur orchestra with the excessively-long name, performed Brahms’ Symphony #4 under Robert Zelzer for the first half of the program. The playing was somewhat ragged, but they made it through reasonably well, considering they are not professional musicians. As usual, Brahms wrote pleasant-sounding music but had nothing to say. Occasionally an orchestra partly makes up for this by itself having something to say when playing Brahms, but not this orchestra and not tonight.
After the intermission, the Academic Wind Instrument Philharmonic – a student orchestra which grew out of the Vienna Technical University – got to do the original version of the rarely-heard Grand Funereal and Triumphal Symphony of Berlioz under the Danish conductor David Hojer. The first movement – funeral music – emerged quite strikingly. Perhaps I have spent too much time in Russia recently, but I almost heard antecedents of Schostakowitsch in some of Berlioz’ harmonies and rhythms. A Russian orchestra, with its glaring winds, might take to this work. The second and third movements settled in less convincingly as the orchestra tired and began to drag. Berlioz himself later re-scored this piece to strengthen those two movements with a chorus, and perhaps this performance of the original version provided some indication of why he believed he needed to do that. Indeed, when it looked like the orchestra was preparing to perform an encore, Hojer consulted with several of the musicians and then announced from the stage that they were too tired to play an encore.
Mendelssohn, Elgar, Bruckner
Tonight was amateur night at the Musikverein. However, in this case we are talking about Vienna, and the amateur group is the Orchestral Society of the Vienna Association of Friends of Music – in other words, the concert hall’s own house orchestra founded in 1859. Robert Zelzer took the podium, and Othmar Müller (OK, he’s a professional) brought his cello (made in 1573).
On the program were Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Bruckner’s Symphony #4. The orchestra was enthusiastic but not accurate. This generally carried the Mendelssohn and most of the Bruckner, but not so well the somber Elgar and the exposed Adagio movement of Bruckner’s symphony. In the case of the Elgar, however, Müller managed to hold the entire work together through his thoughtful playing. Not much could be done with the Bruckner adagio except to wait for the scherzo.
Someone (although I do not remember who) once described Bruckner as not so much a composer of music but rather as a man who captured music that already existed in the aether, so that human listeners could hear the sound of heaven. Certainly, enough Brucknerian aetherial sounds have established permanent residence in the rafters of the Musikverein Hall, so even an amateur orchestra could pull them down. These are amateurs who give only three concerts a year and their performance, even if rough, was to be appreciated.