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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Concert Review: From Atonality to Whipped Cream

The Vienna Philharmonic bids farewell to the City of Dreams.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Handy dandy: Diana Damrau takes over podium duties from Zubin Mehta (left) as
Vienna: City of Dreams comes to a riotous end at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Steve J. Sherman © 2014 courtesy Carnegie Hall.
The Vienna Philharmonic drew the curtain on Carnegie Hall's three-week Vienna: City of Dreams festival with a massive Sunday night concert featuring a sweeping survey of that city's disparate musical history. Spanning from the choral music of Mozart to the 20th century experiments of Webern and Korngold, the orchestra players showed their affinity for dance music, opera, operetta, orchestral music, and even atonality in a sprawling program that at least, never proved dull. The inspired choice for leading this program: former New York Philharmonic music director Zubin Mehta, a beloved figure in this city.

Otto Nicolai may not be as well known as other 19th century opera composers, but he holds a place of distinction as one of the founders of the Vienna Philharmonic. So it was fitting that the evening open with a brusque, cheerful account of the overture to his Die Lustige Wieber von Windsor, a German-language adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy. It was quickly followed by the finest part of this evening: the six atonal Pieces for Orchestra by Anton von Webern. Vienna may be the birthplace of the waltz but it was also home to the Second Viennese School, and playing this music showed that the Philharmonic continues to be in touch with music that is now a century old but still at the edge of the avant-garde.

The focus then turned to choral music, starting with the "Moon Chorus" (again from the aforementioned Falstaff opera by Nicolai) Heard on the same bill as its overture, this performance was an excellent argument for reviving this underrated opera--perhaps in repertory with its brothers by Verdi and Salieri? The New York Choral Artists sang with full, rich tone. Less successful was the chorus-and-orchestra arrangement of Der Feuerreiter by Hugo Wolf, a lied that sounded blurry when compared to the original arrangement for piano and voice. The first part of the concert ended with a shimmering "Ave Verum Corpus," the gorgeous Mozart motet.

Following an intermission, the program then confronted the orchestra's own history in the 1930's and '40s, with works by Franz Schmidt (the Intermezzo from his opera Notre-Dame) and composer Theodor Berger, whose militant Legend of Prince Eugen was an unfortunate example of Nazi-approved music in 1941. Mr Mehta brought out plenty of color and orchestral effect, and the Schmidt intermezzo has some gorgeous writing for the brass which makes it a favorite with certain conductors.

Far more palatable was the Violin Concerto of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Vienna-based prodigy who fled the Anschluss for Hollywood and became one of the most important composers of film music in the 20th century. Giving Korngold his due was soloist Gil Shaham, who navigated the difficulties of the expansive first movement with a sweet, singing tone. Korngold's challenging writing for both instrument and orchestra make this one of the most demanding works in the violin repertory, and the thrilling final movement was like the setting off of a string of fireworks. Mr. Shaham also gave the evening's first encore, playing Schön Rösmarin by another Viennese composer: Fritz Kreisler.

For most of their long season, the Vienna Philharmonic is a serious orchestra, devoting itself to symphonies and orchestral works of great import. Yet they're also the world's oldest dance band, as they took great glee in demonstrating in the final section of this concert. A New Year's Eve concert in miniature, this set featured music from all four of the Strauss family composers (Johan I, Johan II, Eduard and Josef) and other "lighter" composers like Lehár, Hellmesberger and Lanner. Highlights included the latter's Steyrische Tänzer, which gave the waltzes and polkas a rest in favor of the ländler and the Bahn Frei! Polka with Mr. Mehta and the principal percussionist trading train-whistle calls across the stage like a pair of exceptionally goofy Gibichungs.

Johann Strauss Jr.'s Frühlingsstimmen Waltz was crowned by the addition of Diana Damrau taking the soprano part that is accompanied by the orchestra. This was gorgeous stuff, as Ms. Damrau warbled and twittered above the high violins. Even better was "Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss", from the brilliant and largely forgotten Lehár opera Giuditta, the composer's last stage work. (It's kind of like a German Carmen but the music isn't anywhere near as good.) The final encores also featured Ms. Damrau: as she sang her first ever performance of the Csardas from Die Fledermaus and then (temporarily) did duty as a guest conductor for the Unter Donner und Blitz polka. All this fun was expertly played--the orchestra followed the first violin.

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