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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Concert Review: The Empty Podium

The Vienna Philharmonic plays Sibelius at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen.
The Vienna Philharmonic at a concert in Berkeley, California in 2011.
Photo by Terry Linke © University of California at Berkeley.
The Vienna Philharmonic played the first of three New York concerts on Friday night. The venerable orchestra is currently touring with conductor Lorin Maazel, who, at 82, is celebrating a 50-year association with the orchestra that started with a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio in 1962.

Friday's program was one of Mr. Maazel's specialties: three symphonies by Jean Sibelius. Mr. Maazel has been conducting the symphonies of Finland's national composer for over half a century. He's also recorded the cycle twice: once with the Vienna forces and again with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. So it was somewhat surprising that these interpretations were missing the qualities of fire and emotion that are needed in the performance of these great works.

The program went chronologically backward, starting with the Seventh Symphony. This was the last of the composer's completed symphonies (an Eighth may have existed, but was probably destroyed), a condensedwork that packs all the development and ideas of four movements into a concise twenty minutes. Although the Vienna players brought warm string tone, searching woodwinds and their trademark horn sound to its pages, the Seventh sounded curiously workmanlike and uninspired.

The same problems plagued the first two movements of the Fifth: gorgeous playing that suffered from uninspiring leadership. This was particularly apparent in the central Andante. Matters improved considerably in the finale, driven by a bell-like, tolling figure in the horns that alternates with a sprightly woodwind melody. The best part: an eloquent, emotional statement in the cellos that was played with sentiment and warmth.

The second half of the concert featured the First Symphony, one of Sibelius' longest and most challenging pieces. It opens with a long clarinet cadenza, where the conductor stands with his arms down, mute before bringing in the whole orchestra. Mr. Maazel stood there, at rest, waiting for the solo to wind to its end. 

Then, his arms lifted. The white baton came up. And then the weird thing happened: the orchestra made its entry, but their timing had little to do with Mr. Maazel's. The principals of the four main string sections (first and second violins, violas and cellos), were working off each other, making eye contact and giving silent cues as they played through the piece. Nobody was looking at the conductor.

The phenomenon extended to other sections of the orchestra. Eyes fixed on their sheet music, the tuxedoed Vienna players were playing on orchestral auto-pilot, making use of their experience and ability to get through the four movements of the symphony. And for the most part, this trick (if it was one) worked.  . The orchestra's sound quality was gorgeous, worthy of their stellar reputation and world-wide fame. But throughout the First Symphony, it felt like the concert was being led from the first chairs, and not by Mr. Maazel.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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