My Dinner With Andrew
Franz Schubert: Symphony # 8
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 2
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)
A Month at Carnegie Hall
“I do not believe that I am able to comment on the state of the law and legislative activity of Austria, or for that matter, the Vienna
Philharmonic's membership traditions. However, I think we all know that the Vienna Philharmonic is a superb orchestra deserving of presentation to music loving audiences in New York and around the world. I suggest to you that it is at least in part because the Vienna Philharmonic tours in the United States that Carnegie Hall and other institutions, as well as individuals such as yourself have the opportunity to encourage the Vienna Philharmonic to move in positive directions.
February 3, 1997
On a recent visit to Vienna, my companion and I took a cab from the airport to our hotel on the Margaretenstrasse, where the first performance of The Magic Flute took place. Along the way, we passed many remarkable sights, but the only one which the driver, who had no idea that we were musically inclined, pointed out was the magnificently illuminated opera house. The Viennese are extremely proud of this structure and view it as the center of their cultural universe. New Yorkers are similarly inclined to be effusive about Carnegie Hall. One wealthy woman with whom I am acquainted is especially sentimental about a brick from the renovation project, a rhomboid for which she paid dearly at a fundraising function.
The Operahaus was severely damaged by Allied bombs during the war, the pilots supposedly mistaking its roof for that of the nearby rail station (they must have thought that the trains were made of gold to have assumed that they embarked from such an ornate structure). Similarly, Carnegie was almost destroyed by an attack of Philistines who thought that parking garages were more important than temples to Apollo or Orpheus, and was saved by the tireless efforts of violinist Isaac Stern, now canonized as the namesake of the main hall but, if truth be told, a singularly disagreeable man to those who knew him personally (although it was perhaps his repellent nature itself which eventually wore down the opposition). The Austrians painstakingly reconstructed the damaged sections of the theater, which were those closest to the Sacher hotel, immortalized not just in pastry but as the central location in Sir Carol Reed’s brilliant cinematic adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, in faithful early nineteenth century style, so that it is very difficult today to see where the original ends and the copy begins (Viennese to the core). New Yorkers did indeed restore their own musical temple, but to what extent are they still committed to preserve its great tradition?
The Vienna Philharmonic is the foremost champion of that tradition, getting themselves in hot water with politically correct Nazis on this side of the pond upset with their slowness in admitting female members. What is ignored by the protesters is that it is not so much a matter of gender as of lineage, the bulk of these musicians being the sons, nephews and grandsons of former orchestra personnel who have been trained literally from infancy to play in a particular, recognizable manner. Even their instruments are inspected for pedigree, not period per se, but all of a certain construction and functionality. Phrasing decisions, bowings, tempi, timbre, blending, embouchure and attack are all geared towards the preservation of the great tradition, the very lifeblood of the Danube itself. And does it matter? Oh boy (or should I say, “oh person”?), it does indeed!
Last evening’s realization of the Schubert was a fine example. The sheer beauty of the sound was breathtaking, even though the interpretive performance was rather run of the mill. The combination of stringed purity and delicate melodic enunciation in the horns at one point made this reviewer rethink the acoustic health of many other contemporary ensembles. The tranquility of quietude, established by Maestro from the very first tender growlings of the basses, was pervasive and persuasive. Perhaps the emphasis on a particular style makes the Vienna Philharmonic less versatile than other groups. So be it. It is far and away in a class by itself, a class which has never lost its way on the path to excellence.
There are many similarities between the numbered symphonies of Bruckner and those of Beethoven. Much of this phenomenon is no coincidence, but rather a conscious homage from the younger composer (the shared key signature of the respective ninths, for example). The first of each is the Classical one, the third the beginning of both anxiety and triumph, the fifth the breakout symphony for both men. The second for Beethoven is certainly the one of the nine that is most ignored; in the case of Bruckner, it is locked in a basement closet like the idiot bastard child that it has become over time. A quickly called conclave of critics during last evening’s interval resolved that none of us had heard a performance of this important work live for over forty years, the last one being in Cleveland with the sainted George Szell. But there are legitimate reasons for this shunning. The piece is really Bruckner Lite, containing 99 percent perspiration (especially in the brass section) and only 1 degree of inspiration. To be sure, all of the Brucknerian devices are there, but they serve no meaningful purpose beyond the necessary calisthenics to prepare for a masterwork like the third. Listening to this long-winded work today makes one realize that critics like Hanslick were not simply moved by anti-Wagnerianism. There is quite a bit of substance in their thesis that there was virtually no substance in some of the early pieces of the Linz organist. In fact, the piece sounds like the mealy fruit of an academic exercise: produce an instrumental essay in the style of Anton Bruckner, no credit will be given for any beautiful themes or powerful developments. However, considering its rarity, this Vienna performance, although a bit disappointing (especially in terms of intonation) by the superior technical standards set just yesterday by this excellent band, was undoubtedly the finest that this reporter will ever hear in his lifetime.
In New York, those who care about tradition may soon be left on the outside looking in. At this year’s press conference to announce their new season, Carnegie’s artistic administrator, Ara Guzelimian, in some sort of personal expiation, stated that he used to be a “classical music nerd”, but now his eyes were opened to many new types of music. He was indeed very wide-eyed, but under the emotional circumstances of Robert Harth’s recent death and the speaker’s own confession that he had a bad cold, I chose not to regard his expression as one of religious fervor (after all, some of us might not share his epiphany). Stating that he was particularly looking forward to a concert featuring country singer k.d. lang and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, his enthusiastic comment was “It ain’t gonna be Nuits d’Ete!”. No indeed, Mr. Guzelimian, it ain’t.
Frederick L. Kirshnit