In this world, there are good orchestras, and there are great orchestras. And, then, there is the Vienna Philharmonic, which has played a central role in the evolution of western music for the past two centuries. The VPO was founded in 1842 to provide Vienna with an "artistically worthy" ensemble that could perform the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn. Before long, Brahms and Bruckner were having their works premiered by the VPO, often conducted by the composers themselves. True to that history, today's VPO performs a healthy dose of 20th and 21st century music, in addition to the classical and romantic masterworks for which they are renowned.
But, the real reason to go see the VPO is that somewhere along the way, their definition of "artistically worthy" exploded into such a bad-ass level of playing that they consistently leave your mouth hanging open in astonishment. Every instrument is played flawlessly and with the deepest emotion, with an overall unison that is nothing short of miraculous.
One contributing factor to this sonic splendor has stirred up more than a little controversy over the past two decades: namely, the fact that the orchestra is overwhelmingly comprised of white men. I've heard all the arguments for and against, and the fact of the matter is: the VPO is a self-governing institution, and it can hire or fire anyone it chooses. Frankly, the criticism is somewhat arbitrary: do people question why the Juilliard or Ermerson String Quartets are all male? Or Del McCoury and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band? Or indie bands like Vampire Weekend? From my perspective, there is a difference, in both individual and group dynamics. The end justifies the means.
Case in point: Beethoven's 6th Symphony, which opened Friday night's concert at Carnegie Hall, part of the VPO's annual visit to New York. I can't even fathom how many times the VPO has played the "Pastoral" symphony - 200? 500? - and yet they performed it with such conviction and feeling, it felt fresh and completely alive. (The horns, in particular, sounded almost human.) It was like taking a ride in a Maybach: the road might have been the same, but the drive was so elegant and graceful, it was in a class all its own.
After intermission, the VPO played the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde: a favorite of conductor Daniel Barenboim, who led Tristan with the Met Opera just last season, and has conducted it numerous times with his own opera company, the Berlin Staatsoper. He conducted Wagner's rich, ecstatic music as if in a trance, the strings swelling to an almost impossible climax. Absolutely tender and true.
In a last minute change to the program, Barenboim ended with Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra (1928): an acknowledged masterpiece by the 12-tone master, but about as far from Beethoven and Wagner on the musical spectrum as you can get. It is a work of harsh beauty, full of dissonances and abrupt dynamic changes, ending with an outburst that nearly knocked me off my seat. It received a polite ovation, from those who hadn't already vacated the premises.
Happily, Barenboim and the VPO sent everyone home on a more familiar note. "This is for you and for those who left before the Schoenberg," Barenboim wryly joked before launching into a frolicking Strauss polka, just like the ones they play on New Year's. Not surprisingly, the crowd went gaga, humming their way to the exits.
On Sunday afternoon, Barenboim picked up right where he left off, taking the VPO through Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra and Pierre Boulez's Notations I-IV, and VII. Aside from each work being made up of five sections lasting a total of 16-17 minutes, they shared a similar harmonic palette: ranging from harsh, to mysterious, to fierce and brutal. But, while the music may not have been to everyone's liking, anyone could appreciate the technical prowess the VPO brought to bear on these 20th century works: crisp, snapping strings, clarion winds, spot-on brass. The message was clear: the VPO is such a finely-tuned instrument, it doesn't matter what you put in front of them. They're going to hit it out of the park.
It's almost a joke for any serious orchestra to perform Beethoven's 5th Symphony these days, the work having been performed so many times - and co-opted so often by mainstream culture - it's almost impossible to say anything new about it. But Barenboim (who, perhaps acknowledging the 5th's weighty baggage, took a very long time to take the stage after intermission) was wise to set the table with the Schoenberg and Boulez, which only amplified the shock-quality of the 5th's famous four-note opening motif.
As the VPO ripped through the first three movements, I thought about what it must have been like when Beethoven dropped this bomb on Vienna back in 1809. The 5th basically came out of nowhere, wiping the slate clean of everything that came before it: an explosion of sound from pure nature. More than 200 years later, it is still jarring, vital and stunning.
The transition from the 3rd to the 4th movement, when the orchestra goes almost silent before erupting into the triumphant key of C major, is undoubtedly one of the great moments in music. As I sat there in the sixteenth row of Carnegie watching 80 of the greatest artists in the world tear through Beethoven's masterpiece, I suddenly felt a tinge of sadness darkening my absolute wonder. Because I realized that nothing, in art or in life, would ever surpass this moment of pure joy. It was like seeing the face of God, only to have it be taken away...
(More pics on the Fan Page.)