Mostly Mozart takes on Rossini’s Stabat Mater

disclaimer: ad for a different concert.

I promise I won’t start this Mostly Mozart review with a note that their recently-vaunted innovation is, in most concerts, invisible. This hook has proven awfully popular.

This was a concert of Rossini and Beethoven. (This year’s theme: Mostly Mozart and Beethoven. It’s… sorry, almost got pulled by The Hook again.) There was a preconcert concert by the Dover String Quartet, which featured the daring choice of Beethoven’s Op. 59/2. Further innovation!

Sorry, Mostly Mozart Festival. You just make it so easy. And the Dover Quartet was excellent, with a nice lightness and dynamic range. The first violinist’s super-bright E string seemed distractingly unblended at times.

Anyway, the main concert. It was conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, who seems to be Italy’s cosmic conducting recompense for Daniele Gatti. Together they average out into normal tempos–Gatti is glacial, Noseda just drank a whole case of Red Bull. But Noseda got considerably more out of the orchestra than Louis Langrée did at the opening concert. The orchestra’s sound still lacks body, but in the opening Beethoven Symphony No. 2 (hey, at least it was slightly obscure Beethoven!) they played with much greater accentuation and color. The Larghetto was more like an Andante, and the winds made some welcome contributions. The final two movements were also breathless, occasionally a little scrappy but excitingly so.

The main body of the program was Rossini’s Stabat Mater. It’s a grand piece of music, and not one set to a text you’d expect to be so red-blooded, but that’s the most obvious thing to say about it and I don’t really have any wisdom to impart on this matter. Noseda didn’t seem to feel any need to make it sound like Palestrina, it was big and loud and fast and not very subtle but on the whole quite good. The chorus was the Concert Chorale of New York and they sounded fantastic, with better blending and ensemble than the orchestra by a long shot.

The soloists were a good group. Soprano Maria Agresta has a glamorous sound with a fast vibrato, consistent and very Italian with strong high notes. (This reminds me how infrequently we actually hear Italian sopranos today.) But she lacks a degree of refinement, tending to sing everything forte with minimal phrasing. The Inflammatus is pretty loud, and the high notes made it exciting, but I could have used something more nuanced at times. Also in the brutal force category, Gregory Kunde belted out the Cujus animam and landed square on the high note with great strength. But his tone is leathery and unpleasant.

The lower voices were more satisfying. I may have gone to this concert mostly to hear mezzo Daniela Barcellona, after liking her so much in La donna del lago at the ROH. Actually, I totally did. And she was great, with a dark, plangent sound, of course less fiery than she had been in the other Rossini but singing with great expressive intensity. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen sounded excellent in the Pro peccatis and the recit, booming out with impressive power. I wish he got better casting at the Met.

So on the whole a satisfying concert, though I wish Noseda had stopped to smell the flowers occasionally.

Program Notes Smackdown
I haven’t done one of these for a while but there are a few bits of Andrew Shenton’s notes with which I have to take issue. On the Rossini:

“It is too tempting to be engaged with the drama of the music and the virtuosity of the singing and playing rather than the meaning of the text.”

Yes, the perceived disparity between text and expression is an interesting, if obvious crux. Why don’t you discuss it instead of scolding your audience for doing it wrong? (Is it just me or does this sound like a Calvinist sort of complaint? This music is Catholic!)

On the Beethoven, he quotes Maynard Solomon calling the symphony “both retrospective and progressive.” Then he says how:

“Its retrospective elements are the orchestral form… four movements with a slow introduction… its prospective features begin with the arresting introduction, marked Adagio.”

Wait, what?

Also, this program is getting out of control with regard to sections. There’s a note on the preconcert concert, a welcome to the festival from the artistic director, a program note on the whole festival, a one-page “program summary” note and then the proper program notes. If you got that far. This has been another episode of Program Notes Smackdown.

 Mostly Mozart Festival, 8/14/2013, Avery Fisher Hall. Gianandrea Noseda, conductor, Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with the Concert Chorale of New York (directed by James Bagwell).

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Mostly Mozzzzzzzart

The Mostly Mozart Festival! More like Mostly Doze-art, amirite? Sorry, that’s cruel, but neither was I convinced by this Times piece about how Lincoln Center’s July/August celebration of the familiar is innovative now because they have a small new music series in a tiny theater. It’s easy enough to get a hundred or so people to come over from Roulette, call me when they put their money where their mouth is, that is, change the central, large-scale program. Because the main theater is again hosting programs of mostly Mozart, along with a celebration of a composer who is, compared to Mozart, unusual and underrated. You know. Beethoven.

Also, call me when I can get a ticket to the David Lang piece in the tiny theater. Because that thing is seriously sold out. So I ended up in Avery Fisher Hall for the opening program of Mozart. And Beethoven. This concert was seriously not sold out. Tons of empty seats. Draw your own conclusions.

On the other hand, if this is an improvement, how somnolent did it used to be? Geez. Because, to be honest, this concert was mediocre. (When your programming is this bland, so-so performances don’t even have the virtue of novelty.)

The Festival Orchestra, as conducted by Louis Langrée has a decent, warm sound and plays with energy. But in this concert they skated over the surface of the textures. The strings seem unable to produce a crisp, sharp attack, and there were places, particularly in the opening Coriolan Overture, where a good deal more weight and darkness would have helped. Perhaps this is in part the Avery Fisher acoustic, but it all sounded rather soft focus. This proved particularly fatal in the many repeated sequences found in Beethoven’s development sections. There was no tension or shift of dynamics, it was like jogging on a treadmill. You’re working away, but you aren’t going anywhere.

The Mozart portion of the concert was supplied by Alice Coote, who sang “Ch’io mi scordi di te” and “Parto, parto.” She was the best thing about spring’s Giulio Cesare at the Met, but her full, rather thick mezzo seemed a little out of place here. While the orchestra was breezy, Coote is unwaveringly intense, which can be disconcerting when dealing with two brief concert arias rather than a whole opera. To my taste, she made a few too many sacrifices of elegance and clarity of line for the sake of dramatic emphasis. While exclamations like “Stelle barbare” and “Perché!!!” had focus, a little more bravura and flair would have been welcome.

The rest of the program was Beethoven. I’m not a good judge of pianists, so I’m not going to say a lot about Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s performance of the Piano Concerto No. 4 and the piano part in “Ch’io mi scordi,” but I wasn’t all that impressed. He’s got a crisp sound that matches the orchestra, but his middle-range playing rarely projected to my rear orchestra seat, with muddy passagework in all except the highest registers. The phrasing in the second movement was more graceful. The program closed with the audience-pleasing Symphony No. 7, which seems to be on every program ever. This account was fine but not anything special–fleet and light, but lacking in rhythmic Schwung.

Some of the rest of the festival looks more promising: I hope to catch the Rossini Stabat Mater with Noseda and the awesome Daniela Barcellona, and the highlight will surely be the Figaro with the fab Budapest Festival Orchestra and a promising cast. Let’s hope it improves.

Meanwhile, I’ve come up with some ideas for improvements on Mostly Mozart:
Almost Mozart: music from the late 18th century by everyone except Mozart
You Think You Know Mozart?: music Mozart wrote before the age of 13. don’t make this annual.
Mostly Nope-Zart: concerts that are 90% very loud and non-gentle music
On Twitter, LJC suggests the additions of Staggeringly Stamitz and Drastically Dittersdorf. Sure sell-outs! Add your own in the comments if you like.

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Fidelio in Dresden, or, Why do women like Fidelio so much?

I went to see Fidelio
in Dresden and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

The Dresden Semperoper premiered a new production of Fidelio
scarcely a month before the fall of East Germany. Much has changed in the
intervening decade. But it doesn’t take much knowledge of German history to
understand why it was a sensation at the time. The prison guards and the
politics are those of the dying East Germany itself, and the crowd that hails
Leonore and Florestan, triumphant fighters for freedom and justice, at the end
of the opera looks no different from the one protesting in Dresden’s streets in
October 1989.

You can read the whole thing here. Excepting the always-excellent orchestra it wasn’t a very good performance but the history is interesting.
I jumped at the chance to see Fidelio, as I always do. (That this one turned out not to be very
good, well, alas, they can’t all be. It had historical and local interest, as
you can read in the full review.) I belong to a not very exclusive club: women
who have a reflexive, excessive love for this opera. I don’t want to speak for
all the other ladies out there but I know enough of them to think that I’m not
alone in this. (We’ve heard all the stuff about the awful libretto and
mismatched acts, and I at least can say, I
don’t care.
)
The reasons why we love it seem at first painfully obvious:
unlike the majority of women in opera who spend their time onstage pining or
dying, Leonore does stuff. When the men of her world prove helpless, she takes
their place, does their job better than they can themselves, and rescues the
man she loves for the ideals they both believe in. She doesn’t dither or worry,
she takes decisive action. And significantly, she saves him without sacrificing
her life for his. Instead of dying for a two-timing jerk like Gilda, she saves
someone who seems to be worth saving, and acted for a higher, abstract political
purpose as well as for her own love. She gets to triumph through Beethoven’s brutal
vocal writing (we hope), while he’s absent through the whole first act. When he
finally appears he is more often than she brought to extreme grief by Beethoven’s
brutal vocal writing. At the end the chorus hails not him but her.
Leonore is the most decisively, straightforwardly heroic
woman in opera. Her lack of a backstory is an asset, because it isn’t there to
weigh her down. We have no answers to the questions that normally determine a woman’s
existence—her virtue and her beauty. We have to take her as she is, that is to
say judge her as if she were a man, the man she is pretending to be. And we
have no choice but to approve of her. Disapproving of her actions would be to hate
all that is good in the world. No one wants to be on the side of Don Pizarro.
But I think it goes deeper than that. Sometimes it can be
hard to be a woman who loves opera, the genre treats so many of our gender
terribly and you have to satisfy yourself with a very limited range of
representation. It can be hard to be a woman studying classical music in
general, where the two most powerful figures, the Composer and the Conductor were
inevitably, until extremely recently, almost exclusively male. The epitome of
this is, cast in a role he never asked to play, Beethoven, Classical Music’s
Greatest Composer, or, as a recent biography called him, The Universal Composer.
Whose universe are we talking about here? Beethoven’s “heroic style,” though it represents only a small portion of his music, has outsized
importance in his image (see the Secession statue on the right), and also has come to
serve as a keystone of an entire network of representations of the Romantic.
But the figure in the center is inevitably a masculine one. The feminine
Romantic doesn’t get her E-flat major, her Liszt, her Napoleon, her horns. The Romantic
artist, which is to say the Romantic hero, is a man. The woman is, most commonly,
relegated to the status of object.
Except in Fidelio
she gets to be the hero, and she gets her horns (literally, I mean). (That the
plot is a relic of the eighteenth century, well, we can ignore that part right
now.) In Fidelio the Romantic heroic
is given a woman’s voice, a woman in men’s dress because she has to be but
nonetheless a woman’s voice. Here is one of the central works of Beethoven’s
heroic style and that heroism is vested in a woman, a woman who is just as
capable of heroism, and in fact more capable, than anyone else around her. What
everything else has insisted is not our property is, here, finally ours.
How to end this except with this:

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Fabio Luisi and the Wiener Symphoniker in NYC

Of course I couldn’t miss a chance to reunite with the Wiener Symphoniker on Sunday. (known in these parts as the Vienna Symphony Orchestra–where the “orchestra” came from, I know not). I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

The Italian conductor Fabio Luisi has become an increasingly familiar
and welcome face to New York audiences. Recently appointed Principal
Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, he is primarily known here as an
operatic conductor. But he has also been the chief conductor of the
Vienna Symphony Orchestra (known as the Wiener Symphoniker in German)
since 2005, and on Sunday the Viennese joined him in Avery Fisher Hall.
While the warhorse program recalled the taste of the city’s other major
orchestra–the arch-conservative Vienna Philharmonic–it was a fine
afternoon.

Click here to read the whole thing. I like Luisi a lot but I was really going to this concert to hear Schmidt’s fantastic Symphony No. 4, which was swapped with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a piece the Symphoniker could probably play in their sleep. (The obvious explanation is that this change had to do with the amount of time Luisi has been spending at the Met.) I was quite disappointed.

It’s interesting how Luisi’s reputation in New York is so much better than it is in Vienna. He keeps canceling Symphoniker gigs to conduct at the Met, which doesn’t endear him to the Viennese, but most of the people I talked to managed to both be pissed about his absenteeism and denigrate his conducting skills. In my experience he is a better opera conductor than a symphonic conductor, and he doesn’t conduct opera in Vienna much (as one of the many, many conductors who doesn’t get along with the Staatsoper), but he’s still a fine musician, far above average, and I was surprised at how low Viennese audiences rated him. I think there might be some national prejudice here–his repertoire overlaps to a dangerous extent with Christian Thielemann’s. But anyway, Vienna, New York is happy to take Luisi off your hands.

I’d prefer you send him over with Schmidt next time, though.

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Fidelio in Munich: Led to freedom

Of all composers, it’s Beethoven who we think we understand. The greatest achievement of Calixto Bieito and Daniele Gatti’s strange Bayerische Staatsoper Fidelio is how it disrupts our expectations and banishes calcified certainty and cliché. The prison exists only in the minds of the alienated characters, and Leonore finds that freeing her husband isn’t quite as simple as finding him and dressing him in a suit. The production’s fragmented dreaminess and vaguely unfinished quality can be frustrating, but its handful of revelatory moments and wonderful performances add up to a powerful experience.

Beethoven, Fidelio. Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/5/2010. New production by Calixto Bieito, sets by Rebecca Ringst, costumes by Ingo Krügler, lights by Reinhard Traub. Conducted by Daniele Gatti with Anja Kampe (Leonore), Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan), Franz-Josef Selig (Rocco), Wolfgang Koch (Don Pizarro), Laura Tatulescu (Marzelline), Jussi Myllys (Jaquino), LazArt Quartett.


Sit back, guys, this one is going to take a good amount of space. Also, I again had a restricted-view seat, and the chance I missed something important is pretty good, alas.

This production does not take place in a literal prison. The set is a shifting maze of glass and metal, in the first act a vertical structure of floors and ladders and, in Florestan’s cell, a horizontal one of hallways. Each character is a captive of this strikingly beautiful Borgesian labyrinth, each inside their own private mental prisons, alienated by the proverbial Modern Condition. Each has an obsession that prevents them from reaching the labyrinth’s center and the freedom found there. It’s a Bildungsroman for the Cormac McCarthy set.

Before the overture, Leonore opens the opera by reciting a Jorge Luis Borges poem. Here it is in English (it’s from In Praise of Darkness).  Maybe the labyrinth doesn’t have a center at all; whether there is any escape is a key issue of the production:

Labyrinth
There’ll never be a door. You’re inside
and the keep encompasses the world
and has neither obverse nor reverse
nor circling wall nor secret center.
Hope not that the straightness of your path
that stubbornly branches off in two,
that stubbornly branches off in two,
will have an end. Your fate is ironbound,
as is your judge. Forget the onslaught
of the bull that is a man and whose
strange and plural form haunts the tangle
of unending interwoven stone.
He does not exist. In the black dusk,
hope not even for the savage beast.

The overture that follows is not the Fidelio but full-blown Leonore No. 3, here given a schizophrenically dissociated performance by Gatti, moving between Zen-like waves of crescendos and decrescendos and frantically fast sections. Onstage, Leonore takes off her shirt and binds her breasts. This is important: it is the denial of her sexuality and single-minded need to find Florestan that prevents her from escaping the labyrinth, not the lack of Florestan himself. (Giving the woman her own purpose in life, what a concept!)

Bieito has eliminated the spoken text almost entirely and inserted short quotations from Borges and McCarthy in its place. But they do not serve remotely the same function; most are some variation on “I am trapped in the labyrinth,” offering a few moments of spoken interlude between the musical numbers. The series of musical numbers does not present us with the plot but the various characters’ more or less independent psychological prisons, all products of the constraints of modern society. Rocco wants money. Marzelline wants sex, and Jaquino is, as could be expected, a rapist. Don Pizarro wants power. Leonore, determined and capable but denied a full life, struggles with literal ropes attached to the labyrinth in “Komm, Hoffnung.” In the Prisoners’ Chorus she puts pictures of Florestan’s face on the scattered prisoners, as if that would transform these momentarily free men into her husband and thus free herself. When some bits of the plot intrude into the sung texts it is as if they are fragments from some other world.

The first act exists entirely in this kind of timeless abstraction; in the second the labyrinth is lowered to a horizontal position and we disconcertingly enter the world of characters and events (we also acquire a number of hanging acrobats who descend from the flies, symbolizing floating freedom and such). What exactly is wrong with Florestan is unclear (perhaps mental illness, perhaps resigned into an exceptionally bad case of modernist alienation), but despite his vision of Leonore and attempts to climb out of the labyrinth, he is mentally elsewhere and scared of anyone who comes near him. Leonore dispatches Pizarro with both a bottle of water smashed over the head and acid thrown in his eyes.

The marital reunion begins euphorically, and Leonore ditches her man clothes for a dress and Florestan his asylum-like pajamas for a suit, but after “O namenlose Freude” they draw away from each other, Florestan unsure of leaving and Leonore not sure who this is that she has finally found. Then, where Mahler and Bernstein put Leonore No. 3, a string quartet descends from above and plays an excerpt from the slow movement of the Op. 132 string quartet, the Heiliger Dankgesang (only the molto adagio, not the “feeling new strength“ section). It’s a moment of perfect peace and stillness, and the hanging musicians seem to represent the consolatory, freeing, yet abstract power of art (cue Beethoven biography reference, and the program includes the text of the Heiligenstadt Testament). And yet it is only a momentary respite.

The finale confused me a bit. Don Fernando arrives in the personage of the Joker from The Dark Knight (some other parts of this production kind of recall Inception–I suspect that Bieito is a big Christopher Nolan fan), a deus ex machina who enters from the audience. He proceeds to shoot Florestan. While he does not remain dead onstage, I think he actually does die. Because the utopia of the finale is a freedom that can’t exist (especially when you’re in a Calixto Bieito production), and considering Florestan’s mental state, he isn’t going to be able to piece his life together again in this world, wife or no wife. The only release for him is death. The rejoicing of the reunion continues in some other space. But what does this mean for Leonore?

This is my biggest problem with the production: the characters exist in such isolation from each other. I think it may be too abstract for me; I miss having a plot and real characters instead of symbols of a vague existential struggle, and it was only during the more concrete action of the second act where I was fascinated (as evidenced by my descriptions–I really thought the treatment of the reunion was brilliant). The first half of Fidelio is inevitably a dramaturgical challenge, but this solution seems weirdly lacking in ideas, almost incomplete. And I missed the good old struggle for justice, however naive it might be. I guess I’m sentimental.

But the best thing about this production is how unnaive and unsentimental it is, how it expresses the power and desire of Beethoven’s score without lapsing into cliché. As intendant Nikolaus Bachler said at the post-show discussion, “The curtain goes up and there’s ironing! Always ironing!” But beyond avoiding ritual staging, Bieito expresses the central theme of freedom while pretty much destroying any comfortable historicist paean. He avoids the ideological truisms of black and white truth and Western idealism that are attached to Beethoven and this work in favor of something more unique and intensely personal. (My problem with most Beethoven presentations is encapsulated in the subtitle of Edmund Morgan’s Beethoven biography, The Universal Composer, a phrase that presents so many cultural problems that I don’t even know where to start.  Bieito is an antidote to this.) It might be neither fuzzily inspirational nor coherent, but it has many other virtues, and its freshness and complexity are definitely some of them.

Musically, Daniele Gatti seemed like almost the right conductor for this production. He is willfully strange, with weirdly slow tempos and unexpected shifts, sometimes overwhelming the singers and sometimes lacking in coordination and rhythmic crispness (from the stage, this could have had to do with the production). But the static quality and unexpected twists seemed to fit with a production this unconventional, and his strange waves of music certainly sounded alien. The orchestra, particularly the strings, sounded very good, though occasionally a little bewildered.

Anja Kampe made a tremendously badass Leonore. Her large, rich voice sometimes struggled through Beethoven’s murderous vocal writing and Gatti’s slow tempo in the first half of her aria. But her singing was expressive and heroic throughout, and her giant high Bs ideal for this role. She acted with remarkable sincerity through the considerable demands of the production, and her naturalness and honesty provided most of its soul. Jonas Kaufmann navigated the terrors of the aria with great dramatic eloquence, including a daring crescendo at the beginning and a trumpeting ending with strong high notes. And his vaguely autistic, tic-ridden Florestan was a formidable piece of acting. But after the aria he sounded under the weather, and sometimes was drowned out in the ensembles. (This was his return to the production after several illness-related cancelations, and he coughed several times mid-aria. Hilariously, half the audience immediately broke out in sympathy coughs.) Laura Tatulescu and Jussi Mylls were animated as Marzelline and Jaquino, both singing with clarity through their considerable acrobatics. Wolfgang Koch made an oddly soft-grained Pizarro. Franz-Josef Selig was an excellently sung Rocco with robust, round tone. As usual in a Bieito production, the acting and commitment from the cast was across-the-board great.

I found parts of this production massively frustrating, but there is more of it that will stick with me.  And, as you can see by the amount of words it took me to explain my thoughts about it, it certainly gave me something to think about.  As much as I love the triumph of justice, it’s going to be a little tricky to go innocently back to the ironing after this.

All photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.
Trailer (3 minutes):

Documentary (10 minutes):

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Philharmoniker/Thielemann: Stuff dead white guys like

Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker will be playing the complete Beethoven symphonies in Paris and Berlin in the next few weeks.  Before leaving, they deigned to bring two of them (Nos. 4 and 5) to the Musikverein on Saturday (they played the lot together here last season).  It’s the orchestra’s only concert in the city this month.  It was pretty much fantastic, I can’t really complain about anything.  Oh wait, I can!  Imma gonna tell you about how perfect the Beethoven was and then try to work out some issues I have with this orchestra.

Wiener Philharmoniker; Christian Thielemann, conductor.  Musikverein, 20/11/10.  Beethoven, Symphonies No. 4 and 5.

Yesterday morning I realized I didn’t know shit about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.  No library at hand, I looked for some program notes on the internet.  I found out that it isn’t very popular (I had maybe already figured that out) and that it was called “maidenly” by Schumann but was exonerated of these charges by a British musicologist to whom it resembled the calisthenics of a manly manly giant.  The Philharmoniker has a well-known aversion to feminine weakness, so nothing to worry about there.

As usual, the orchestra sounded magnificent, if anything even better than usual.  This program was extraordinarily polished and finely tuned.  Thielemann’s Fourth sounded to me closer to late period Beethoven than early.  A constant tension rippled just under the surface, a nervous energy and power that reminded me more of the first movement of the Ninth than anything else.  It remains a classical form, though, and the eruptions happened where you would expect them to, all perfectly paced.  The second movement, though, was marvelously delicate and seamless.  The obsessive motivic fragmentation of the scherzo again recalled the Ninth.  The last movement is the most straightforwardly Classical, and sounded such here, with a vigorous but dazzlingly bright energy.

The Fifth is a piece we all think we know, and while I’ve played it a few times I actually haven’t heard it in concert very often.  Thielemann started it so suddenly the audience hadn’t even settled down yet from his entrance.  I can understand wanting to surprise us and try to reestablish the weirdness of that incredibly familiar opening gesture, but I wish he had waited for it to be quiet, I couldn’t even hear the opening clearly.  This was a propulsive, almost light account of the score, never ponderous or heavy or even as imposing as you would expect.  Thielemann has a way of tweaking the phrasing just a little bit so something sounds entirely new, but in a way that also is natural. 

The last movement was nearly presto from the very start, and rather thrilling even if some of the fast notes in the strings got lost (volume issues, not coordination ones!).  The ending was a real shock: an exaggerated ritardando speeding up to what you think is going to be an enormous triumphant close, only to pull back at the last second to a beautifully clearly voiced chord on nothing more than mezzo-forte.  It worked stunningly well, but also stunning in the fact that it was tremendously surprising.  I’m not sure if I would always want to hear it like that, but I’m glad I did once.  It did not touch off the wild cheering a less subtle ending would have, and the applause took a little while to build.

Beethoven ends here, now for my ISSUES (you know I have issues!).  While Philharmoniker concerts are always musically special, I find the organization kind of reprehensible to an extent that I sometimes feel uncomfortable listening to them, no matter how sublime the playing. There’s the sexism,* and there’s the arch-conservative, none-too-creative programming (they programmed Mahler Nine twice this season, five months apart with two different conductors).  But that’s only part of it.

The Philharmoniker is an orchestra devoted to the preservation of its own legacy above all other things.  This leads to a conservatism full of contradictions.  Their image today is less like than the Wiener Philharmoniker of Mahler’s day than of a bunch of white men devoted to perpetuating the canon of dead white men.  (Oh yeah, odds are they’re racist too.)  They market themselves as a luxury product: scarce, old-fashioned, and exquisitely independent from the realities of everyday life.  Appropriately, they are sponsored by Rolex.

To be fair, this is from the ushering
in of the Euro in 2002.

The orchestra is one of Vienna’s foremost ambassadors to the outside world, partly because the seem to be on tour more than they are at home.  Their prestige allows them to claim themselves as representative of both the city and of classical music as a whole.  Their Vienna is the one of Schönbrunn, not of today’s city, and their classical music is patriarchal and elitist in a way that doesn’t speak to the general public under the age of 70 (except tourists).  On a practical level, most tickets are inaccessible to anyone who can’t handle standing room or the prices of scalpers (14-year wait for a subscription, anyone?).  While the orchestra is making an admirable effort in the education realm, will those children ever be able to get into their concerts when they’ve grown up?  Their website doesn’t even clearly explain how to get standing room tickets, the only kind that are easily available (I explained how here).  It is only on New Year’s–the one day that Old Vienna throws a party when everyone’s invited–that the orchestra engages with the broader public.

The orchestra argues that its greatness (they’re good, but they’re not modest) is the result of this very same conservatism.  But I think it’s a shame that an orchestra that has so much to offer so often sees itself as above sharing.

If you want to see the Beethoven symphonies with Thielemann, their performances from last season are being issued on DVD and broadcast the next few weeks on Sunday mornings on ORF2.  It’s almost audience outreach, but I think it takes a wrong turn and ends up in self-promotion, an area where this orchestra has much more experience.

Next: I am busy!  There is much work, and there are many Troyens and Adriana Lecouvreurs to listen to, in preparation (oh hi, London and Berlin!).  I might not get out next until Juliane Banse’s liederabend on Friday.

*I counted five women in the orchestra (of course all except one were sitting at the last stand of their respective sections).  That’s got to be some kind of record, and I have to cynically wonder if it also has something to do with this being a tour program.

Orchestra photos copyright Wiener Philharmoniker/Foto Terry.

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