The first time I saw the Vienna Philharmonic was on a snowy Monday in January, 2003. I had flown into Vienna earlier that morning, and after a day spent wandering around the sights in the Ring, I made my way to the Musikverein where a non-subscription concert was taking place. I didn't have a ticket, and ended up watching the first half on a monitor in the lobby. A dwarfish usher came over and asked me in broken English what I was doing, and after I explained to him I didn't have a ticket, he nodded his head and walked away.
He came back right before intermission, and asked if I wanted to see the second half of the concert. He wagged a finger at me, told me to stay where I was, and briskly walked away. He returned five minutes later with a stub from a patron who decided not to stay for the second half of the program. It was a seat in the right center of the orchestra, face value 62 Euro. "Here," he said. "Eet's your's. Enjoy."
I'll never forget my first glimpse of the ridiculously ornate Goldener Saal, with its golden walls and marble caryatids. Or the sight of the orchestra clambering onto the tiny stage at the front of the hall, followed quickly by Simon Rattle, who was then in his first season as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Their performance of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben made me sit straight up in my seat: they played with such passion and precision, such absolute technical perfection, I thought my heart was going to bounce out of my chest and onto the wooden floor. It was - up to that point - the most extraordinary musical event of my life.
Fortunately for us New Yorkers, we have the chance to experience the sound of this astounding orchestra every year in our very own gilded hall. But, apparently, New Yorkers didn't get the memo that they were in town this past weekend, as there were numerous empty seats scattered throughout Carnegie on Friday night. (I suspect the recession might also have had something to do with the unwillingness on the part of some patrons to fork over $200-and-up for a decent seat.)
Former NY Phil director Zubin Mehta is accompanying the Phil on their present tour, which will eventually take them to China, India, and Abu Dhabi. (The Phil. doesn't have a music director, only a stable of longtime "guest conductors.") Mehta, who's 73 now, was basically a non-factor on the podium, showing all of the energy of a turtle. Didn't matter: this is an orchestra that plays better on autopilot than almost any maestro-led outfit in the world.
Case in point: Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, which opened Friday night's concert. The Philharmonic strings really dug into it, creating a big, husky tone that was at times dark and brooding, others light and transcendent. The ending was played with such effortless perfection, it felt like gliding across a pond, still as glass.
The main course was Bruckner's 9th: a symphony of astonishing majesty and scope that the composer spent the last nine years of his life working on, leaving it still incomplete at his death in 1896. Even so, the remaining three movements last over an hour, full of pulsing brass and percussion that felt almost minimalist in texture. The horns played the long, tender passages in the final movement flawlessly, using what must have been circular breathing to play such extended notes without pause.
Carnegie was far more full for the matinee on Sunday. Haydn's "London" Symphony was like a sweet, honeyed confection: moments of pure delight followed by little sad farewells, ending with a rollicking polka that sent smiles all around. It proved the perfect setup for Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, which put me right back in the Musikverein at the drop of the first deep chord. As I listened, it struck me that there is absolutely no separation in these strings: they play as one blended instrument in perfect unison, the bass indetectible from the violins. The concertmaster, Rainer Küchl, performed the fiendishly difficult solo with effortless brilliance; the trumpets played their offstage fanfare with total confidence. And, for an encore, the Phil. rewarded us with a Strauss waltz and polka, just like they do each New Year's in Vienna.
I hear what you're thinking: this stuff is old school, hidebound. Why the hell would anyone want to hear it in 2009? Answer: the same reason people read Shakespeare, or go to the Met museum. It's really effing good. And these guys are really effing good at it. And, if you weren't there, you missed the best show in town. Well, other than that Grizzly Bear show on Saturday... (More pics below.)