Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Vienna: Musical Nirvana

I explored the area around my apartment in Vienna the first night of my arrival.  I wanted to be sure I knew where the Konzerthaus was in order to be timely for the Vienna Philharmonic concert the following day.  On the route was the legendary Vienna Opera House.  A brief history of the Opera House appears at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_State_Opera.   Out of curiosity, I looked at the list of upcoming events, and, lo and behold, the Staatsballett was scheduled to perform that very evening a program of works choreographed by Balanchine and Robbins.   And what, you asked, was the program?  To my surprise and joy, the very first piece was scheduled to be Philip Glass’ Glass Pieces.  So I purchased a ticket and began to experience this grand building.  The lobbies and lounges are magnificent.  There are a myriad of coffee and champagne bars to wonder through, each with designs ranging from baroque to art deco to mid-century modern.  It was a treat just seeing these beautiful interiors.  I was seated in the top balcony and my seat was only slightly off the center of the row.  The almost circular auditorium is beautiful in red and gold.  The hall had been remodeled after the destruction of World War II and it retains that mid-century look.    
The Vienna State Opera Orchestra, under the direction of Peter Ernst Larsen, began playing.  The actual Glass pieces played were Rubric, Facades, and excerpts from Akhnaten.    Glass is one of my favorite composers and it was thrilling to hear his music played by one of the world’s premiere orchestras and to see it performed by one of the world’s premiere ballet companies.  The choreography by Balanchine is also in a class by itself.  Hearing familiar music transposed to different instruments can lead to hearing the music “with new ears.”  I know Glass’ work as played by his ensemble, which tends to rely on amplified instruments.  His music was even more beautiful played by a traditional orchestra, although it did include an electronic keyboard.  The orchestral version softens the music’s hard edges and allows its complexity and melody to be highlighted.  The choreography is typical Balanchine- it uses the dance to represent the music much like fountains that are synchronized to music.  The Vienna dancers were wonderful.  Rubric had a wonderful group of soloists including Masayu Kimoto who had some of the longest arm extensions I have ever seen.  Balanchine’s choreography is kinetic and sometimes the dancers would lose their line, which is easy to see from the balcony.  The excerpts from Akhnaten, driven as they are by two drums, were sizzling.  The orchestra’s percussionists were a treat to watch; there arms movements were large and flexible.  The entire performance was top-flight. 

The second piece was “In the Night” choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The beautiful nocturnes of Chopin were played on the solo piano by Igor Zapravdin.  This was an elegant ballet performed by three pairs of dancers.  All were technically grand and beautiful to watch.

The third piece was Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto.   The soloist was none other than Rainer Honeck, brother of Pittsburgh Symphony Music Director Manfred Honeck.  Rainer is concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and also a noted soloist.  His performance here seemed to be note perfect.  At times, the orchestra seemed to overwhelm him, but I suspect that is the conductor’s fault.  Again Balanchine’s choreography provided a visual representation of the music through constantly moving dancers.  One of the dancers fell but was so quick to regain his footing that he did not miss a beat. 

The final piece, again choreographed by Balanchine was Theme and Variation, based on Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 3.  Of note, the costumes were designed by Christian Lacroix.  Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music was made even more wonderful by the rich and elegant playing of the Staatsoper Orchestra.  The dancers performed skillfully, but again lines were a problem.  There was one corps member who seemed chronically to a fraction of a beat behind her compatriots, thus causing her frequently to be slightly in the wrong place, which can play havoc with ensemble. 

This was a wonderful performance overall and I could not have enjoyed it more. 

The following day I attended a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic at the also legendary Weiner Konzerthaus.  It was a cold and blustery day, with a gray overcast sky.  I ate an overpriced breakfast at the Museum Café but the Earl Gray tea warmed me up for the walk.  The Konzerthaus is a sprawling building  (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Konzerthaus).  It has about 1800 seats.  The lobby of the building is not very impressive, except for its size.  The shoe-box-shaped auditorium is resplendent in red and gold, with large crystal chandeliers.  My seat was in the balcony, with excellent sight lines and no overhang.   Because of the shape of the hall, there are side boxes that seem odd to me, given that I am used to the typical American theater-style seating.  To see from these boxes requires turning the head or the chair to see.  It seems not that comfortable to me, but this shape of auditorium produces some of the finest acoustics to be had.  The program was conducted by wunderkind Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the incoming music director of the Philadelphia orchestra.  For about Nezet-Seguin, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yannick_N%C3%A9zet-S%C3%A9guin.  The program began with Brahms Piano Concert No. 1, featuring Helene Grimaud as soloist.  The second work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony “Pathetique.”  Grimaud recently accompanied the Pittsburgh Symphony on its European tour. 

The stage of the Konzerthaus remained empty until the concertmaster appeared, followed by each member of the orchestra.  As they entered, there was sustained applause.  In Vienna, the players are accorded great respect, and they deserve it.  It also means that the orchestra doesn’t sit on stage tuning and practicing, creating the racket that American orchestras do.  I like the Viennese approach much better.  The sound of the Vienna Philharmonic is warm, golden, and smooth.  I noticed that the floor of the Konzerthaus vibrated sympathetically to the orchestra, which may help account for some of the warmth, but there is no doubt that the orchestra deserves its reputation as probably the best in the world.    Ms. Grimaud, who incidentally is a very handsome woman, appeared on stage in a very stylish jacket and slacks.  The Brahms was beautifully played, both by the Philharmonic and by Ms. Grimaud.  My only complaint is that the second movement adagio was played at a snail’s pace.  It seemed to be without momentum.  That slow tempo, combined with the excessive temperature in the auditorium and my jet lag, made my head bob a bit.  That is painful to admit!  The rousing finale helped make up for the languorous second movement.  The audience applauded vigorously in response to the performance, and Grimaud reciprocated with the love with a brief encore.
As an aside, as I type this, Nezet-Sequin is conducting  Bruckner’s Symphony  9 on Radioio Classical (http://www.radioio.com/channels/classical/?rp=genre/classical-jazz).

Back to Vienna- the Tchaikovsky 6 is one of those works that I have heard so many times that it is no longer on my top-ten list.  As a result, I was not particularly excited about hearing it.  But to my great surprise, this was a stellar performance.  Nezet-Seguin provided an insightful performance that did not get bogged down in hyper-emotionality, which can happen to this work. NS kept the first three movements focused on hope, and longing, and fearlessness.  He did not let them become depressive or overly foreboding.   The final movement is very dark, sad, and hopeless, even though in this dismal landscape a bit of light shines from time to time.   For me, this movement has a touch of the hysteric in it so for it to be successful it requires that the conductor not be caught up in the theatrical emotionality thereby avoiding having the music seem like it needs electro-shock therapy.  NS brought dignity to the music, which made its sadness ring true but without hysteria.  The audience was thunderous in response.  NS was called back to the stage numerous times.  He deserved it.  My only quibble with the performance was a blooper in the trumpets.  Big deal!

I attended a concert at St. Anna Kirche by the Vienna Concertante.  This string quintet performed the complete Vivaldi Four Seasons.  St. Anna’s dates back to 1320 and is a stunningly beautiful Baroque church (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Anne's_Church,_Vienna).   It was a wonderful venue for this music.  It is highly reverberant and added warmth to the performance.  This was an absolutely first-class, stunning, delightful, wonderful, amazing, etc., etc., performance.  I would return to hear this in a heartbeat.  I have posted some excerpts from the event. 

As luck would have, the Staatsoper was performing Pucinni’s “Madam Butterfly.”   I checked at the box office and tickets were about $150.  Ugh.  There were street hawkers who were offering seats for about $15. I took the risk of buying one knowing that there was probably a catch.  Indeed there was.  I was in a box, but my seat was located such that if I sat down, I could not see the stage!  So, I stood.  It was worth it.  It still boggles my mind to think that I was hearing an opera at the world’s premier opera venue.  The cast included:
·         Svetla Vassileva | Cio-cio-san, Butterfly
·         Marco Caria | Sharpless
·         Aura Twarowska | Suzuki
·         Herwig Pecoraro | Goro
·         Hans Peter Kammerer | Yamadori
·         Lydia Rathkolb | Kate Pinkerton
·         Alexandru Moisiuc | Onkle Bonze
·         Hans Peter Kammerer | Der kaiserliche Kommissär

I believe that there was a substitution for the Pinkerton character.  I did not catch his name, but more of him later.  The staging of this performance was beautiful.  The sets were remarkable and so much more lavish than the recent Atlanta Opera performance of Madame Butterfly.   This a tragic opera about a callow American naval officer who takes advantage of Chinese-marriage law and marries a sweet young woman, only to ultimately leave her with his child.  He eventually returns with his new American wife, seeking custody of his and Cio-cio-san’s young son.  This is American exceptionalism at it worst.  It does not end happily!  The singing and performances were great.  My only hesitation was that Ms. Vassileva was a bit long in the tooth to play the young Chinese woman.  I could even see that from my perch.  The person who performed as Lt. Pinkerton had a weak tenor voice that had a difficult time rising about the orchestra.  His mannerisms were perfect for the young officer, but he simply didn’t have the voice to be convincing.  During curtain calls, he seemed only to want to get off the stage.  Maybe he felt he was weak also.  Nevertheless, this was an inspiring performance.

I went to see Ballet Revolucion the last night of my stay in Vienna.  I was already mourning having to leave the heart of classical music so I decided I had to see one more performance.   Ballet Revolucion is a Cuban-based dance company (see: http://www.balletrevolucion.com/australia/home).  The dancers in this group are so strong, both technically and physically, that their performance is a non-stop rush of energy.  They use classical ballet techniques while dancing to popular and Cuban-influenced jazz (or is it jazz-influenced Cuban music?).   The music included works by Beyonce, Prince,  Bob Marley and others.  

These dancers are large and even the women are substantial, but none have an ounce of body fat.  A particular stand out was Jesus Elias Almenares.  In one of the number, he had his back to the audience.  He took off his shirt and every muscle in his back was clearly visible.  He gave new meaning to being “ripped.”  Another standout was Moises Leon Noriega.  He too was muscular, especially in his legs.  The women were equally strong: Idania La Villa Palenzuela, Babara Patterson Sanchez, Lianett Rodriguez Gonzalez. And Jenny Sosa Martinez.  This was a high energy performance that energized the audience and sent me into the night with excitement.  Do not hesitate to see this group.  They probably can’t appear in the US- it is definitely our loss.

I have a few final observations.  Vienna is alive with music nearly every night and it will be even more so in the warm months.  The same can be said of Budapest.  There are musicians everywhere to be seen- on the streets and in the theaters.  The audiences are made up of a broad range of ages and races.  That is certainly a contrast to audiences in the US.  New music is greeted with the same enthusiasm as old masterworks.  These are great musical centers that will carry on the great Euro-centric tradition of classical music.  

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