With the wealth of talent that flies in and out of Carnegie Hall on a regular basis, it's hard for any one group to stand apart from the pack, even for a world-class ensemble like the Vienna Philharmonic. What better way to diversify this group's talents, though, than to take two performances out of their three-week-long series, Vienna: City of Dreams, and showcase their "other" job as the house band for the Vienna State Opera. During Saturday evening's concert performance of Richard Strauss' genre-bending 1905 opera, Salome, the mighty Philharmonic players, under the baton of Andris Nelsons, transformed themselves into a savage, monstrous orchestral force to be reckoned with. There are special nights at Carnegie, and then there are nights like these.
Nothing about Strauss' 90-minute masterpiece was standard for the time (or even for today): a biblical storyline transcribed by the then-degenerate literary figure Oscar Wilde; an onstage striptease; an offstage beheading; sexual interest between a stepfather and his stepdaughter (take that, Mr. Allen!); and a leading role that spends over 75 percent of the running time on stage. Add to this a post-Wagnerian sense of constantly shifting chromatic harmony, and you have a recipe for disaster—or, rather, incredible success. (The 1906 Austrain premiere in Graz was the talk of the continent, with none other than Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, and even a young Hitler reportedly in attendance.)
Over 100 years later, the opera still grips audiences with its bloody, majestic hand. Andris Nelsons (who will step to the podium as the Boston Symphony's new music director next season) led the orchestra and singers through a pristine account of the score. Despite the size of the 80-plus orchestra, textures and inner voices were as crystalline as this reviewer has ever heard. From the first serpentine scale in the clarinet through the violent attack on Salome by Herod's soldiers that closes the opera, every moment was sublimely paced and effortlessly musical.