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Music review: The Vienna Philharmonic in Berkeley

February 28, 2011 |  4:00 pm

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BERKELEY -- The Vienna Philharmonic has one of the world’s most glorious musical homes -- the gilded Musikverein in the Austrian capital. Nevertheless, this nearly mythical orchestra does like to gad about. In the fall, for instance, it was joined by Gustavo Dudamel in Danville, Ky., where (for a hefty fee) it provided entertainment for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Last weekend, the Viennese big adventure was a three-concert residence in Berkeley, the orchestra’s first appearance in the Bay Area since 1987. But instead of being greeted by a Colonel Sanders impersonator, the expectation was a picket line of angry protesters. The concerts were preceded by an attack in the San Francisco Chronicle, focusing on the orchestra’s poor record of hiring women and lack of racial diversity, long a controversy.

Berkeley, however, is hardly the hotbed of radicalism it once was. For the Vienna Philharmonic’s final and most ambitious program Sunday afternoon, the Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov led an impassioned performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (which will be repeated at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on Thursday night). Although this was the first sunny day in a while in the Bay Area, the plaza in front of Zellerbach Hall -- the site of any number of political demonstrations over the years -- was without sign of protest.

Inside, the Viennese got not only an enthusiastic reception but an inappropriately enthusiastic one. Clearly drained by conducting this colossal 90-minute symphony, which ends with a catastrophic shock, Bychkov vainly attempted a moment of meaningful silence as the audience leaped to its collective feet bravo-ing in an elated instant.

There was, as there always is with these Viennese, a lot to cheer about. The smooth string sound and that liquid brass section never let you down even in this hall’s dry acoustic. The hard part with the Vienna Philharmonic, though, is getting past the impressive ease with which these musicians phrase as one and the regrettable ease in which they can lapse into disarming sentimentality.

The Sixth, which Mahler called the “Tragic” and which vacillates between extreme angst and pastoral reverie, demands doing both. It was completed in 1904, first performed in Essen, Germany, in 1906 and reached Vienna in 1907, at a time when Mahler and the Vienna Philharmonic were not getting along. A pickup band played the symphony's Vienna premiere and the reaction was ugly.

One critic likened Mahler to maggots and parasites eating away at the marrow of music. Even though Mahler had converted to Catholicism, much of the criticism of Sixth was full of anti-Semitic code words (“loquacious,” “shrillness,” “unbearable, dank piety”). I could also have done without Richard E. Rodda’s program notes for the Berkeley concert calling Mahler a “slightly disturbing character,” “obsessive creator,” “loving but insensitive husband” and “universal philosopher filled with self-doubt.”

For my part I certainly didn’t notice a single insensitive note or a second of disturbing self-doubt in the driving, convincing, loving performance led by the 58-year-old Bychkov, who happens to have emigrated from his native St. Petersburg in 1974 because, he has said, of its anti-Semitism.

That is not to say that the Sixth, despite its classical four-movement structure, doesn’t allow room for great swings of emotion. The first movement has driving march-like rhythm, and when the storm clouds part, cowbells and a tinkling celeste suggest a bucolic reverie that is followed by a swelling theme in the strings of sweeping infatuation.

Mahler simply made room for the world in his symphonies, for love and nature, for the fright of death. And Bychkov concentrated on the meaning of the moment, giving shape and character to each little Mahlerian marvel, while keeping everything moving.

There is some question as to the order of the middle movement, whether the Scherzo or Andante should go first. Bychkov followed Mahler’s original thoughts and let the playful grotesqueries of the Scherzo precede a deliciously sensual reading of the Andante.

The symphony turns harshest in the half-hour Finale, which begins with the winds of other worlds from swooping harps and strings. The movement is famous for its three devastating hammer blows –- the hammer here was comically large while only making a dull thud. Still Vienna plays power Mahler, and Bychkov captured the movement’s extreme intensity without doing anything extreme.

A word about the Berkeley residency, which also included student workshops (and a wine-tasting trip to Napa Valley). The three programs (the other two were conventional mixed bills) were sponsored by Cal Performances, Berkeley’s equivalent of UCLA Live. But don’t expect anything equivalent in L.A., now that UCLA arts presentations have been shamefully scaled back to the bone.

However, the Vienna Philharmonic will spread these other programs throughout Southern California this week in Santa Barbara, Palm Desert and San Diego, as well as the Mahler Sixth in Costa Mesa.

-- Mark Swed

Vienna Philharmonic peforms Mahler's Sixth. Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Thursday. $55 to $350. www.philharmonicsociety.org.

Photo: Semyon Bychkov with the Vienna Philharmonic at Zellerbach Hall Friday in preparation for its first performance in the Bay Area since 1987. Credit: Peg Skorpinski/Cal Performances.

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