by Nick Stubblefield and FoM
Every year around this time, the Vienna Philharmonic
makes their annual trip to NYC for a weekend of concerts. And, every year, I have the same conversation I have with myself: Haven't I had enough? Is it too much of a good thing? Should I just skip them this time and come back refreshed next year?
And, then, there's a tug that happens that eventually finds me right back in my plush seat at Carnegie Hall
, ready to hear this gold standard of world orchestras do their thing one more time. After all, "a thing of beauty is a joy forever
." And, in today's world, it's best not to take anything for granted.
Whenever Vienna comes to town, you can feel the difference. There's a buzz in the halls and stairs. People are dressed to the nines, speaking multiple languages. And, when the orchestra finally takes the stage - all at once, European-style - the applause is knowing, familiar. This most exclusive of fan clubs - one which I am ridiculously privileged to be a member of - knows exactly what's about to happen. And, they can't wait.
On Friday night, the bill of fare was Brahms, standard fare for this orchestra hailing from the town where the composer lived and worked. What was a bit surprising was who was leading: Gustavo Dudamel
, the wild-haired, rockstar conductor of the LA Phil
and Simón Bolívar Orchestra
from his native Venezuela. (Uniquely, the Vienna Phil has no permanent music director, only a roster of regular guest conductors.) I wasn't always a fan of Duda's when he first burst on the scene a decade ago, wary that he might be more hype than substance. I've long since been converted: he is the real deal, as much a master of the standard repertoire as he is of Bernstein's "Mambo." As if to drive the point home, Duda conducted the entire program from memory.
Friday's concert - which was recorded courtesy of WQXR
- opened with the "Academic Festival Overture" and the "Haydn" Variations: both sunny showcases for this orchestra's peerless power and precision. The string players flew up and down in their seats, the bass rumbled underneath my chair. Aside from some occasional wobbling in the horns
, the playing was flawless: always in unison, both in timing and loudness. This orchestra is so together, it's hard to believe you're hearing them live.
After intermission, they returned with the Symphony No. 1: a dense, dramatic work that Brahms agonized over for 21 years, fully aware that he was Beethoven's heir apparent. After the long, intense opening movement, Duda took the orchestra through the tender Andante and elegant Allegretto, careful not to gloss over the palpable menace underneath. But he saved his best for the finale: keeping the pizzicato to a glacial pace before letting them race ahead. That was followed by the resonant brass, emerging like a glorious sunrise over mountains, finally giving way to the main theme. The concluding fanfare was pure aural ecstasy, filling everyone in my vicinity with reverence and awe.
After a massive ovation, Duda and the orchestra rewarded us with a pair of encores, which seemed in line with both the orchestra and Duda's own predilections: Bernstein's Waltz from the Divertimento for Orchestra and a polka by Josef Strauss.
Saturday night, the Philharmonic performed two harmonically daring works where emotional shifts are common and sudden: joyful one instant and horrific the next, with a sense of loneliness and dread pervading throughout each. Mahler’s Adagio from his incomplete Symphony No. 10 opens with a somber melody on strings alone. The orchestra played the lyrical, yearning melody with heartrending sensitivity —there were big swells and dips in dynamics, and a perpetual forward momentum. That opening melody returns through the movement but was punctuated with startling moments of brass and percussion. There’s an eerie quality to the work, which can be attributed to Mahler’s unique voicings, arrangements, and harmonic language: his work manages to sound consonant and dissonant simultaneously, which can result in strangely beautiful harmonies.
For Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14, the Phil turned up the heat. Like the Mahler, the work opens with a sad and yearning melody from the strings, but the hour-long work showcased a much broader range of the orchestra’s dynamic prowess. There were plenty of tender moments, but the real thrills came when the orchestra went full on tutti. Brass tones were enveloping, contrabass tones were rich and warm, and the percussion was precise and played with chest-thumping vigor. On fast, rhythmic passages, the orchestra played with astonishing precision and clean articulation.
After more than 175 years, the Vienna Philharmonic is an orchestra with nothing left to prove: a front-seat witness to some of the greatest moments in orchestral music history. In some ways, it would be enough just to hear this venerable orchestra play the notes. And yet, they are so much better than that. They are, in a word, the Best. And, improbably, they just seem to get better and better each time I see them.