Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sounds Viennese to Me

With the Vienna Philharmonic in town this week, there has been much talk among New York's classical musicians about the sound of this storied ensemble. I heard their Carnegie Hall concert on my one night off this week, Wednesday, and was captivated by the orchestra's sounds, plural, because these players do not, as some orchestra's do, play with only one sound and apply it (indiscriminately?) to every kind of music they play.

The first element of the Vienna sound I responded to was its clarity; the distinctness with which all parts were clearly heard. This created a sophisticated sound more than merely a luxurious one. The way the orchestra applied vibrato contributed to this clarity. Melodic lines certainly were played with expressive vibrato, but accompanimental music was played with little or none. The melodies never had to struggle to be heard, and all the middle voices contributed in proper balance. In fact, the crispness and concision of the inner lines gave buoyancy and energy to the sound. It was lit from within. This kind variety of sound was evident in the wind playing as well. Solo lines were performed with individuality and freedom, and then, turning on a dime, the same player made an entirely different sound to blend with another instrument in the next passage.

The impression was of orchestral power that rarely was welded full force. Fortissimo passages had poise as well as power. Quiet passages drew the audience close, whispered messages are so sweet.

The sounds of the Vienna Philharmonic arise from unity of purpose, artistic commitment, and a deep understanding of how best to communicate music's messages. I wish I could hear their Schubert 9 tonight.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Music History

I love that Carnegie Hall program notes list the date each piece received its first performance in the hall. It offers an interesting glimpse of the history of musical life in New York City, and places the current concert in that context.

This is from last night's Vienna Philharmonic concert program:

Wagner Rienzi Overture
Comosed: 1838-1840
Carnegie premiere: 10 Jun 1891, J. M. Lander conducting an unnamed orchestra during a Columbia College graduation.

Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2
Composed: 1829
Carnegie premiere: 2 Dec 1893, Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra with Richard Burmeister, piano

J. Strauss II Die Fledermaus Overture
Composed: 1873-1874
Carnegie premiere: 27 May 1906, James F. Boyer conducing the Amicitia Amateur Band*

J. Strauss II "Wo die Citronen blüh'n!"
Composed: 1874
Carnegie premiere: last night

J. Strauss II "Annen" Polka
Composed: 1852
Carnegie premiere: 1 Oct 1949, Ott Sorosoto conducting the Symphonic Accordion Society

J. Strauss II "Unter Donner und Blitz"
Composed: 1868
Carnegie premiere: 9 Mar 1918, Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra

J. Strauss II Kaiser-Walzer
Composed: 1889
Carnegie premiere: 8 Jun 1892, J. M. Lander conducting an unnamed orchestra during a Columbia College graduation

J. Strauss II "Tritsch-Tratsch" Polka
Composed: 1858
Carnegie premiere: 7 May 1947, David Broekman conducting the Carnegie Pops

*An ensemble that comprised over sixty prominent New York business men, attendance at their Carnegie concerts was by invitation only.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Family Affair

Márta and György Kurtág made their New York debut at Zankel Hall Sunday night, with a performance of four-hand piano music that has become something of a legend in music circles. I wasn't surprised to see the hall full, and so full of musicians—composers and performers—some who had traveled long distances especially for this performance. At intermission, friends and colleagues shared stories of Kurtág's famously detailed chamber music coachings and his sophisticated fixation on the production of musical sound.

Yet, the touching sight of the 82-year-old modernist master and his wife seated on an extra-wide piano bench in front of an upright piano (when was the last time an upright was heard in performance at Carnegie Hall?) belied the challenging intensity and intellectualism that characterize his music. The last music of Kurtág I heard was a performance of his bracing masterpiece, Kafka Fragments, so the Biedermeier aspect of a family gathered around an upright piano (literally around in this case, as Gÿorgy Kurtág, Jr. was seated behind the instrument mixing the amplified sound) was poignant and not a little surprising. The theatricality of the scene—a new, polished-ebony upright piano with its two lids raised on either side (like small vestigial wings) flanked by tall cylindrical speakers of a distinctly sci-fi hi-fi sort connected by cords and microphones—made me think of Virgil Fox's famous line (oft-quoted by my dear friend, Albert Fuller), "Honey, they see you before they hear you." But what did this array of high-end electronics and dowdy piano portend?

The piano's soft pedal was engaged for the entire performance, so the supple, electronic sound manipulation produced a muted hush that mirrored the intimacy of the familial scene on stage. The veiled, slightly diffuse sound drew the listener near, yet the quiet amplification also acted as a barrier, an element of remove, even artifice, separating performer and audience. It created a sonic vitrine containing lovely musical curiosities in miniature. This scene was enhanced by the innate theatricality of some of Kurtág's transcriptions. Martá, seated on the right, spread her arms wide to simultaneously play notes in the extreme bass and and treble, while her husband toiled in the mid-range, their arms entwined in a kind of lovingly inefficient distribution of labor that makes certain domestic chores so pleasant to share.

The music itself, selection from Játékok by Kurtág for both performers or one, and four-hand transcriptions of music by Bartók and Bach, flowed with little break and no applause (until the standing ovation rewarded with two additional Bach encores) through a variety of affects and images, so engaging, so inventive, we would have gladly listened all night. The warm waves of applause at the end seemed oddly anonymous after the intensely personal music and music-making we'd just experienced. Instead, it felt as though we each should exchange kisses, shake hands, and thank our hosts for sharing such a wonderful evening.