Our second symphonic concert this season centers around one single city – Vienna. It’s an inescapable destination for any European tourist even remotely interested in classical music. At one point in their lives, Vienna served as the home base for the likes of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Strauss (Richard, Johann and dynasty!) An incredible music-making culture from the Hapsburg Dynasty through the Classical and Romantic periods, Twentieth Century and beyond, Vienna was a locus for the creation and performance of new works. Whether writing music for church, the salon, the café, the ballroom, or any of the gleaming, gold-gilt concert halls that make Vienna so attractive, composers also had a wealth of musical talent at their disposal. The finest musicians in Europe made their home in Vienna because, well, there was enough of an appetite for music in the city to keep them active. And to say nothing of the many visiting artists from across the continent who continue to this day to make a stop in Vienna. Vienna is still a locus for art and music fascinated by its own past, it’s vibrant present, and an assured future of musical exploration.
I had the great fortune as a student to make Vienna my home twice. My first residency was as an exchange student through DePauw University. DePauw at the time was in a consortium with my own undergraduate school, Denison University, and it sponsored a junior year semester abroad in Vienna with other music students interested in soaking up this incredible culture. During the day we took courses taught by professors at the Academy of Music, and by night we stood in line together to buy standing room tickets to one of the many amazing performances at the Musikverein, Konzerthaus, or even more frequently, at the State Opera. We spent many evenings coaching each other on the finer points of plot and characters in a Mozart or Strauss opera while also engaging in conversation with dozens of other like-minded travelers and students who were also willing to stand or sit in line for up to two hours before a production. After that long wait, we cued up to buy a very affordable ticket which secured a spot, standing, along a railing throughout an entire performance! I had my first opportunity to see the major operas of Mozart, Strauss, Puccini, Rossini, and even stood through and entire Ring Cycle of Wagner. It was a glorious semester that included excursions to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Russia. I made friends and had experiences that set me on my life’s path in music, and I continue to draw on those experiences in my work today.
My second residency was as a Rotary Scholar, when I studied for an entire academic year at the Vienna Academy of Music, and had many of the same experiences attending concerts and operas, but with the rigors of being a full-time student in the conducting class of Uros Lajovic. It was another glorious year filled with indelible memories, and in this year I really felt deeply integrated into the culture of this grand and historic city.
While it is impossible to encapsulate this entire city in one concert, I thought it might be interesting to center an entire concert’s offerings around Vienna. There is such an enormous breadth and diversity of musical thought that has emerged over Vienna’s past, so our concert might be considered a collage of sorts. I’ve chosen to start with one of the most bold and dramatic utterances of Beethoven in his Overture to Coriolan. The music, to my mind, perfectly encapsulates what makes Beethoven’s music so fascinating. The juxtaposition of bold, revolutionary spirit against beautiful, singing melodic lines is nowhere more stark than in this densely-packed overture. It is perfectly balanced in proportion yet so tense and terse in its ability to pack musical discourse into a short time span.
We will then traverse back in time to Mozart, who near the end of his life was honoring one of his many musical friendships with an entire concerto written for the clarinet. At the time, the clarinet was a new instrument that had already found an exponent in celebrated virtuoso in Anton Stadler. Mozart wanted to honor his friendship with Stadler and spared no creativity or depth of human feeling in this composition. The music is the height of classical balance and expression, with a gorgeous second movement that affirm for me what makes Mozart a most humane and loving composer (even as he stands so far above all others in his own Pantheon of creative genius!) I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to shine the spotlight on one of our own musical friends in Amitai Vardi. A superb musician who happens to play the clarinet, we can count ourselves lucky to have an artist of Ami’s virtuosity and musicality within the ranks of the Philharmonic, and I wanted to showcase his musicianship downstage by offering him an opportunity to solo with us on this special concerto.
The second half of our concert is designed to show that there was a time in Vienna’s cultural history when artists stared the anxiety of pre-World War Europe in the face and felt compelled to highlight those fears in their art. Arnold Schoenberg was one such artist. Undisputed in his expertise with the orchestra, Schoenberg boldly came to grips with his own fears and uncertainties about the world around him by embedding those emotional states nakedly into his music. A rather innocuous title, Five Pieces for Orchestra is really a living, breathing, shuddering utterance of what it must have felt to watch a decadent culture fade before your very eyes. I am personally excited to hear our orchestra take to take on this very challenging piece, but I am even more interested in your reaction to it. This is not your typical piece of music. It is uncompromising in its belief that music should express, even when the expression in some cases is not pretty or downright frightening.
Richard Strauss stared the same Vienna down in his expressionist operas Salome and Elektra. The music could be harsh and uncompromising in its dissonance. The stories were so shockingly portrayed that the censors battled to suppress performances. Commentators later wrote about Strauss taking his music to the very edge of listenability, comprehension, and social acceptability. This was deeply controversial music and musical drama, and Strauss was unflinching in choosing plots that revealed the more ugly aspects of human nature and heightening them to a degree that could make you shiver.
And then he decided to turn back. I can think of no more poignant turning back than in the music to Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss himself admitted that he was taking a big u-turn in musical styling by writing his own ‘Mozart opera.’ The music, while certainly not ersatz-Mozart, does indeed revel in the opulence of Romantic harmony and long, soaring melodic lines. It is as glittering as it is sumptuous. In this orchestral suite from the opera, we can hear some of the most glorious musical moments from the over three-hour opera in condensed form, minus that singers. But in this case, the singers are replaced by the instruments in the orchestral that can beautifully sing, including violins, oboes, trumpets, clarinets and cellos.
I hope that in this juxtaposition of Schoenberg and Strauss, you might think about what music is capable of expressing. How can music transport us emotionally? How is it that composers writing in the beginning of the twentieth century in Vienna were as capable of creating the most escapist, luscious, fantastical music while also trying to come to grips with their own anxieties and fears for the future in outbursts of highly concentrated expressionist music? I find it fascinating to think about, and I hope you will, too.