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Ecstatic Music Festival 2014: Timo Andres, Gabriel Kahane, Ted Hearne, Becca Stevens, and Nathan Koci

Vienna: City of Dreams—Eschenbach Leads Vienna Philharmonic in Schubert and Mahler

by Melanie Wong 

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This past Saturday at Carnegie Hall, National Symphony maestro Christoph Eschenbach led the Vienna Philharmonic through the penultimate event of this year's Vienna: City of Dreams festival. Eschenbach, a prolific artist in his own right and a noted conductor with a roomful of accolades, chose two popular Viennese staples for the event: Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8, "Unfinished," and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4.

Utterly pianissimo, the Philharmonic's strings began the anxiously foreboding opening of the Schubert symphony. As one who had never heard the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic, it became immediately obvious why this orchestra in particular is hailed for having the quintessential European sound; the unity and blend among the members of the orchestra—especially during woodwind solos—was absolutely incomparable. The first movement flew by with a lilting energy, but by the second movement, Eschenbach's interpretation became repetitive and predictable, with lots of stop-and-go phrasing, and an unclear natural arc from beginning to end.

The second half of the program commenced with the joyous opening of Mahler's Symphony No. 4. Although the orchestra was initially revived with a confident opening, the rest of the first three movements steadily dragged forward, and Eschenbach offered too much of the same in the ways of phrasing and musical direction. Luckily, the inspired playing in the wind and brass sections, as well as the concertmaster's passionate solos, allowed the performance to still feel perfect in a way.

In an unforeseen twist toward the end of the third movement, however, the orchestra suddenly flooded the room with a grandiose sound and striking energy unlike anything heard that night. Things got even better from there, as soprano Juliane Banse joined the orchestra as the fourth movement's vocal soloist. Banse's smooth, yet spirited, voice impeccably followed the natural ebbs and flows of the music as she sang the final movement's song, "Das himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life"). Heavenly indeed, as if floating away on the ripples of the ocean, the symphony and the evening faded into hushed silence.  

If you haven't heard her yet, be sure to catch Ms. Banse in her Metropolitan Opera debut next month as Zdenka in Richard Strauss' Arabella

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