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Review: Vienna Philharmonic Brings World-Class Music-Making to New York

Vienna Philharmonic

By Jose Andrade, Contributing Writer, February 27, 2017

One of the great orchestras in classical music today, the Vienna Philharmonic, is on a brief tour of the United States this winter, and thankfully, New York is their first stop where they presented a series of three concerts at Carnegie Hall. Headed by Franz Welser-Möst, their first performance on February 24 brought us two familiar pieces by Franz Schubert and Richard Strauss, as well as the U.S. premiere of René Staar’s Time Recycling.

Schubert’s Die Zauberharfe overture began with a round, broad opening, subtle, even a bit sublime. For the main section of the overture, Maestro Welser-Möst allowed his forces to start quietly, building tension and volume, and delivering full-force at the appropriate moment. Utilizing more his left hand than his right for the mood and motion he wanted, the finale was truly thrilling.

Although the program notes called Staar’s Time Recycling (2012) a “meditation on time” in two parts, it seemed more akin to a kaleidoscope of different musical genres, having the feel of someone leisurely turning the channel dial on a radio and enjoying snippets of various genres in varying length before going on to the next. Part 1 opened with percussion and winds in an extremely rushed fashion, suggesting tempi not easily discerned. A menacing recurring string motif, reminiscent of Ives’s Unanswered Question, continually ebbed and flowed. Themes started and stopped abruptly, à la Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. Towards the end of the first part, the strings joined in with the rest of the orchestra for a jazz dance.

Part 2 began with a hazy Adagio with a melody trying to emerge out of Staar’s chromatic material. Quasi-Oriental tonal progressions with horns alternated with a very effective piano and percussion pairing. A Latin beat featuring stellar violin work was interrupted by a Brazilian carnival march complete with whistles and orchestra members yelling out, followed by a lullaby and Mexican mariachi music. Welser-Möst’s conducting was more conventional than in the Schubert, but he communicated a mastery of the score, leaving me wanting to hear the piece again. At the conclusion René Staar took a bow with Welser-Möst and was warmly-received by the audience.

One of Vienna Philharmonic’s major gifts to symphonic performance is an equanimity of sound: each player attuned to their neighbor, each section attuned to their counterpart, and their performance of Richard Strauss’s tone-poem Ein Heldenleben displayed that virtue perfectly. A mellow, but deliberate opening gave way to the jovial, upbeat nature of the piece. Concertmaster Volkhard Steude’s solo violin wove a delicate silken web in the second and fifth parts. A capricious piece, alternating between joy and reflective melancholy, Welser-Möst and the ensemble were masters of this favorite Strauss tone-poem, seamlessly moving from one thought to the next.

For an encore, Johann Strauss’s celebrated Frühlingstimmen Waltz gave the audience a taste of spring with a dollop of Schlag, complete with luftpauses, charm and the slight suggestion of sadness. That such a large orchestra can perform this most idiosyncratic Viennese musical form with such a light touch became just another treat for us to treasure in an already splendid evening with this great orchestra.

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Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on February 24, 2017. Franz Welser-Möst, Conductor.

SCHUBERT Overture to Die Zauberharfe
RENÉ STAAR Time Recycling (US Premiere)
R. STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben

J. STRAUSS JR. “Frühlingsstimmen”: Waltz, Op. 410

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Cover: Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; photo: Chris Lee.


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