the Musikverein

I’ve been in Vienna for just over two weeks now, and in the last two weeks alone, we’ve been to nine concerts, with two more (Thursday evening and Sunday morning) before the week is up.

  • Sunday, March 27 – Strauss’ Elektra at the Staatsoper
  • Monday, March 28 – Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at the Musikverein, performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra
  • Tuesday, March 29 – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, Copland’s and Artie Shaw’s Clarinet Concertos at the Musikverein, performed by the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich and a clarinetist whose name I don’t remember standing in for Martin Fröst
  • Wednesday, March 30 – A Festival of Early Modern Music at the Theater an der Wien, performed by Klangforum Wien
  • Thursday, March 31 – Percussion in Concert at the Musikverein, performed by Ensemble Uppercussion
  • Monday, April 4 – Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra and Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass at the Musikverein, performed by the Radio Symphony Orchestra Wien
  • Thursday, April 7 – Mahler’s Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Symphony No. 1 at the Musikverein, performed by the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and featuring Thomas Hampson, baritone
  • Monday, April 11 – J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion at the Konzerthaus, performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir

Experiencing concerts here in Vienna is like nothing I’ve ever been to before. Virtually every single concert we have been to here has been sold out – even on a Monday or Tuesday evening. What’s even more remarkable is that the St. John Passion concert, for example, is not the only performance that evening; there might also be an opera at the Staatsoper or the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein – and all of those performances are sold out. Also, the Viennese don’t give standing ovations. They will, however, clap for much longer than American audiences will – the minimum seems to be four or five bows. We’ve been to the Musikverein most often, and that concert hall continues to amaze me with its ability to hold sound – it fills the space like nothing else, and the clarity is incredible.

A few thoughts on some of the concerts, mostly excerpted from the weekly journals we’re required to keep of all the concerts and trips we take.

Mahler 2

Wow. The most glorious concert I’ve ever been to, hands down. Hearing Mahler in the Musikverein was so clear, so poignant – at times I felt the sound was too big for the space, but not in a bad way, more like in a powerful way, as though the orchestra were showing off exactly how far it could go, how it could practically explode the building – but it would only give a taste, it wouldn’t go too far. … Mahler is epic. There’s really no other word to describe either the composer or the piece. The positives: I love the big brassy moments. I love the tension and release, the extremes, the contrasts. I love how very emotional it is, how big and bold and powerful it is, and how those moments are made even more intense by the breaths of tranquility and peace that he tosses in. However, (and I remember feeling the same way during the DSO’s performance of this piece) I expected it to end about seven times before it actually did. There came a point when the tension and release and tension and release became too much, where I felt like Mahler diluted the strength of the previous passages by throwing in more and more – too much more. Mahler is kind of like a drug – very addictive, and the more you listen, the higher your tolerance gets, until concerts like this don’t feel like overdosing. For now, I haven’t spent enough time with Mahler – this was overwhelming.

Ensemble Uppercussion

This concert was…highly entertaining. Actually, one of the pieces has turned into one of the running jokes of the FSP: John Thrower‘s Just One World. To get a taste of the piece, click on the mp3/DVD tab and watch any one of the videos – 4132, Just One World, or Time Never Rests. None of us could take it seriously and were stifling laughter the entire performance – from the “FOH SREE ONE TOO” or “Follow your destin-[breath]-neeeeeeeeee” or “TIME. NEVER. RESTS NEVER RESTS NEVER!” – it was fabulously cheesy, and whenever we’re in need of a laugh, this song definitely does the trick. I’m also taking videos of everyone’s impressions and uploading them to Youtube, as Paul does a fabulous soprano-in-a-red-corset impression. Our first few takes are here:

part 1:

and part 2:

Mahler 1

I loved today’s concert; definitely my favorite concert so far. This was the first concert in which I truly enjoyed the vocal part as a welcome addition to the instrumental texture, as opposed to just appreciating it for it’s technical prowess. I loved that the orchestra felt human (this was a youth orchestra, although since they audition all around the world, these are the best twenty-somethings out there) – there were some intonation glitches, a few instances where the bassoon and low strings weren’t together, a few cracked notes – it wasn’t a vision of perfection, but the imperfections made Mahler’s music seem even more visceral. I also, by the end, was absolutely craving that orchestra’s sound – I loved their texture, I loved the colors they created, I loved the way individual instruments came out of the fabric and then delved back in. They  had an incredible range of colors and dynamics and moods as well – at their softest of softs, they came out of nowhere, strings just shimmering, and at their loudest of louds, they were wild, almost too wild, but always still in control. I remember thinking that I wanted to box up their sound and ship it back home. I was more involved with this performance than any performance we’ve been to so far – even from my seat in the far right corner of the hall, above and behind the orchestra, without being able to see anything – I wondered if the sound was even more incredible head on, but not seeing anything gave me the chance to just appreciate the music in and of itself. I wrote YEAH BASSOONS in my journal about five times – bassoons just have such a cool timbre (no personal bias whatsoever), and they did such a good job. I walked out of the Musikverein absolutely beaming, and that happiness stayed with me all the way back to the flats and through a late-night snack of croissants and Nutella with Shannon, Matt, Drew, Amy, Richard, and Anna.

what else…

Aside from the concerts, we had a day trip to Melk, a weekend trip to Salzburg (with a stop at the Salzburg Global Seminar, in which I got to talk with music/neuro people), and explorations around Vienna. Tomorrow, we’re heading to Bratislava, Slovakia, before another concert in the evening. If you’ve seen any of my photos on Facebook or Picasa, you’ve seen something about me in arches (another running joke of the FSP) – Shannon and I narrowly missed being trampled by a pair of runaway horses in the pursuit of an arch picture.

two minutes before the horses came running through

I’ve also started taking lessons with Barbara Gorzynska, a Polish woman who looks a bit like Hillary Clinton and who has promised to throw me into violin boot camp. At the beginning of my first lesson, she said, “Well, you sound dreadful, but we can work with this,” and by the end, she had changed her opinion slightly:

“You know, you’re not that bad for an American.”