When you see people on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill holding signs saying "need 1 ticket," it's almost always for a basketball game. But on this warm winter night, it was in front of Memorial Hall, and the coveted ticket that was being bargained for was to gain entry to hear and see the Vienna Philharmonic. One of the most enduring and respected ensembles in the history of symphony orchestras, this occasion was arguably the highlight of Carolina Performing Arts' current season, and the anticipation was palpable.
Leading the Vienna Philharmonic, in their 175th year of existence, was Franz Welser-Most, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra since 2002 and a frequent guest conductor of Vienna. They had just returned from a three-concert engagement at Carnegie Hall and quickly traveled down the east coast to this Monday night concert in Chapel Hill. This was a program that celebrated the diversity of the music and composers who could call Vienna home, at least for a time, and/or were greatly influenced by the culture and musical heritage of that great city.
First, a few non-musical observations: Vienna practices the "European" model of the entire orchestra coming onto the stage as the concert is about to begin. Some people might miss the onstage noodling, haphazard entrances, and the chance to see the social context of the orchestra. There were also a violin and a viola hanging from the second music stand of their respective sections (first violins and violas, immediately to the right of the conductor). They were not played and were solely decorative – something I have never seen in any orchestral concert. The other major feature, just for the Vienna Philharmonic, was the modest increase in the number of women musicians. For an organization that in relatively recent memory had zero women, this is a significant development.
For those who were looking forward to seeing and hearing the wind and brass players of this legendary orchestra, they had to wait until after intermission as the first work was all strings. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) composed Verklärte Nacht (Tranfigured Night), Op. 4 in 1899 with the Brahms/Wagner polarization still in full force. This revolutionary work, originally for string sextet then arranged for string orchestra by the composer in 1917, stretched the tenets of romanticism in music to its limits. This performance had each of the string sections slightly expanded, as compared to the Schubert symphony, adding greater weight and gravitas to the text of the Richard Dehmel poem concerning a man's willingness to raise another's child. This work can be a tough sell to an audience, but Welser-Most and all the players ebbed and flowed with great poignancy and apparent appreciation of the text. One can often feel an audience's level of attention to a performance, and the unusual stillness and near complete silence was testament to the fully engaged playing and communication from orchestra to listener. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case in the second half.
Like several other of his compositions written near the end of his criminally short life of thirty-one years, Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C ("The Great") is grand in conception, musical ideas and length. Completed in1826, this fairly standard symphony in terms of form and movement designations was at first considered too difficult for most orchestras of that time, but it is now considered standard fare, at least technically. One of the great horn solos begins our rather lengthy journey (just under an hour, even without the first movement repeat of the exposition) as Schubert's seemingly unending revelations of melodic ideas slowly unfold. The Andante second movement is like a complete "unfinished" symphony unto itself. The final two movements contain enough brilliant material to have supplied lesser composers with the tools for ten separate symphonies.
To describe the magnificent playing of individual brass and woodwind players or to think up new metaphors for the pristine playing of the five string sections is a somewhat futile task. They could perfectly play this in, or certainly just awakened from, a deep sleep. That, possibly along with their touring fatigue, might have been the problem for me. As I listened to this absolutely perfect performance, I imagined a room of gleaming stainless steel machines impeccably humming along performing tasks of nearly unimaginable complexity and difficulty with unerring perfection. I had nearly jaw-dropping admiration of the technical prowess, but too much of it just felt a bit sterile and disengaged.
A couple of horn players and a tubist came on stage to play the sole encore, an unnamed Strauss polka. If there were any doubts until that point, we were in Vienna now.
Editor's Note: For a review of a new book about this orchestra's (and Berlin's) wartime history, click here.
*For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.