Saturday, August 10, 2013

Vienna Philharmonic Summer Night Concert (PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened an intriguing PBS concert special, the annual summer night concert of the Vienna Philharmonic (the actual German name, emblazoned in white letters on black in front of the orchestra, is Wiener Philharmoniker), which was a sort-of tribute to Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, arguably the two greatest opera composers of all time, since 2013 is the bicentennial of both their birthdates. The concert was held in the outdoor garden of Schönbrunn, the big palace of the Austro-Hungarian Emperors way back when, though it was held in a fierce drizzle and a lot of the audience members brought (and needed) umbrellas. The concert was conducted by Lorin Maazel, a 70-something American who began his conducting career as a five-year-old child prodigy and, it’s estimated, had conducted 7,000 performances of symphonies and operas in his career. Like Erich Leinsdorf, Maazel is a competent but not particularly inspired conductor; he gets the musicians to play well and stay together but one misses the power and emotion this music can have in greater hands. It also didn’t help that the concert featured only one vocal soloist, tenor Michael Schade, or that he sang on only two of the nine pieces performed (at least on the PBS telecast; the actual concert could have been longer). The program began with the Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aïda — not a piece that works that well out of context — and then the Act I prelude from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (as one critic remarked, Wagner filled Meistersinger with good old German counterpoint just to prove he could — he was commonly written off in his day as an autodidact composer who had never mastered the fundamentals and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously as a composer like his great contemporary rivals, first Schumann and then Brahms). Then Michael Schade came on for the aria “La mia letizia infondere” from Verdi’s I Lombardi, which he sang decently enough but rather raggedly until the final, beautifully floated high note. The orchestra then played the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde — alas, without a soprano to do the vocal part in the Liebestod. Instrumental arrangements of the piece bother me — especially towards the end, when the arrangements generally leave out Isolde’s part and therefore avoid the stunning dissonances between the vocal and orchestral lines that give the piece much of its power. (The best instrumental version of the Liebestod I’ve heard was Franz Waxman’s arrangement for the film Humoresque, in which Isaac Stern as John Garfield’s violin double played the soprano line and turned the piece into a quite effective concerto movement for violin, piano and orchestra.)

Then Schade came on for the high point of the evening, “In fernem Land” from Lohengrin (the standard short version, alas), which he sang magisterially; perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that as a German singer he’d be more comfortable in German than Italian opera, but he sang the aria beautifully, keeping mostly in head tones until the big climax and managing to portray the complex emotions of the character and the scene: the mystical connection to the Grail order, the longing for human companionship and contact, the hurt at Elsa’s betrayal of his trust. (He did the piece well enough I’d like to hear him in a complete Lohengrin sometime.) The remaining selections were the overture from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (and the comparison between Verdi’s overtures and Wagner’s proved how much more bombastic Verdi was; Verdi fans often argue that his operas were warmer and more humanistic since they dealt with real people and not spiritual or quasi-spiritual beings, but as an orchestral composer Wagner ran rings around Verdi, possibly at least in part because the Germans had so much more of a symphonic tradition than the Italians) and what were announced as encores: the “Ride of the Valkyries” and two pieces by Johann Strauss, Jr. — the well-known Wiener Blut waltz (given a rather bowdlerized translation as “Vienna Spirit” when the title is really “Vienna Blood”) and a lesser-known light piece called Long Live the Magic: A Quick Polka. I could have done without the Strauss pieces — just before the first one, the unctuous announcer said, “What’s a concert in Vienna without a Strauss waltz?” (though I’m sure there are many times the Vienna Philharmonic plays in concert in which it does not play anything by the waltz-writing Strausses!) — and gone for more Wagner and Verdi instead, like the prelude to Lohengrin for the former and the Act I and III preludes to La Traviata for the latter — and I also wished they’d got another vocal soloist (like a soprano for the Liebestod who could also have joined Schade in a Verdi soprano-tenor duet) and a stronger conductor than Maazel — who exemplifies the usual rule that long-lived conductors tend to get slower as they age (though some, like Mengelberg and Toscanini, got faster); Wiener Blut was taken so slowly it lost all its passion and drive, and only one couple tried waltzing to it on camera! Still, this was an enjoyable concert, and as Charles pointed out, here, as in the Vienna Philharmonic’s fabled New Year’s concerts (which are quite popularly devoted to light music in general and the Johann Strauss family in particular), both the musicians and the audience seem to be having fun. There isn’t the deadly-dull way classical music usually gets presented in the U.S., as what Charles called a sort of musical castor oil: “Here, listen to this, it’s good for you!”