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5.5.17

Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 7)


This trip is turning a little more awkward as it becomes increasingly obvious that the orchestra leadership labors under the illusion that it can tell me—presumably on account of my being grateful to get to tag along on this trip—what to write and how.

Now, I wouldn’t wish to suggest that my journalistic integrity hasn’t got its price, lest I discourage a bidding war amongst willing and deep-pocketed parties of interest. But it might be said, by way of orientation for anyone but my editors interested in telling me what to write, that my fee for definitely never being taken seriously in my profession again (even if this differs only slightly from possibly never having been taken all that seriously in the first place) is in the robust middle to highish six figures. And that is just a preliminary estimate, not a firm offer, since I’ve not had occasion to mull this subject at any depth before. Nor does it include the premium that buys out my self-respect.




Perhaps the market price for buying tailor-made journalistic coverage is lower in Vienna, where toadying and bootlicking presumed authorities in pursuit of personal interest has been part of the bon ton for a few centuries running, but the yawning canvass of emptiness that is the local coverage of the Vienna Academy Orchestra’s activities suggests otherwise. I had once been told that the reason for this neglect was a vast conspiracy on the part of a wicked, Harnoncourt-loving, Liszt-hating Kabbalah of journalists… but given my experiences, I’m starting to be open to alternate explanations.

If only something could be done about such an utter and unhealthy misconception of just about every aspect of journalism, from the idea that the reported-upon ought to have control over what is being reported about them to the idea that only all-out pleasant reviews are efficient at achieving the greater objective (in other words that it were better if nothing be said than anything containing even a whiff of criticism)… But 30 years of folly, bad advice and even worse instincts are not likely to be overturned. An epiphany so late in the game seems unlikely, unfortunate though that is, because the product—namely the orchestra—deserves better.





available at Amazon
LvB, 9th
OWA / M.Haselböck
Alpha

But come back to me from the morass of easily aroused vanities and delicate egos (mine included) to a gloriously sunny, blue-skied, balmy Sunday afternoon of Japanese suburban calm and wholesomeness that is Musashino on such a day. The end and grand finale of the Vienna Academy Orchestra’s (OWA) visit to Japan looms, with a performance of the Eighth and the impoverished-by-greatness Ninth Symphony.

The audience that assembles before 3PM is particularly decked out today, with several traditional kimonos dotting the audience like beautiful flowers on a lawn. It is the doom of the Eighth Symphony to float by like a prelude of an afterthought, overshadowed by expectations of its unequal brother. That’s a shame, because apart from the smeared entry and a host of flute irregularities, this wallflower symphony, this—to speak with the words of the poet Ralston McTodd “pale parabola of joy”—has the heck played out of it, at a wild pace and with the kind of tempo-unrelated panache that is the OWA trademark.



And now for the Ninth, ladies and gentlemen, a symphony so popular and so laden with symbolism that it has become its own cliché. The notes seem to summersault off the staves, as the orchestra and their conductor Martin Haselböck jump into it. An interesting acoustic phenomenon of total heterogeneity occurs, quite the opposite on the symphonic cohesion of the previous two concerts: A pointillist picture emerges. The third movement is a constant walk on the edge by the horns, which adds a riveting quality that ears spoilt by modern, studio-recorded perfection might find hard to get used to. But there’s a real question to what extent composers, very possibly Beethoven and certainly Mahler, composed the ‘difficult’ into their works as an expressive element:



Take, by way of excursion, the Frère Jacques moment in Mahler’s First symphony. Leaving the question aside whether it’s a solo for one double bass or for the whole section (reasonable people disagree), what is of chief importance here is character. The ‘absolute-edge-of-the-playable’, the deliberately designed to-be-out-of-the-comfort-zone character of that episode is the key to Mahler’s deliciously insidious tilting of the “Bruder Jakob” ditty. Unfortunately (of sorts), today’s best double bass players are too good to let that part frazzle them in the least. You can hear blindfolded audition renderings that are spot-on: Great playing and an impressive achievement, but unfortunately undermining the intention of the composer and the character of the bit.


The writing for voices in Beethoven often suggests something similar, as does Schumann writing deliberately for natural horns when he would already have had new and improved models available to be played. A Beethoven Ninth that oozes with assurance and confidence sounds different from one where there’s always a bite to the affairs, and a proverbially chewed nail or two. From precariousness can arise a certain kind of tendresse.


Fourth movement. Enter several Japanese percussionists in charge of the Janissary elements—and of course the Japanese chorus, the New National Theater Chorus (drilled, on this occasion, by Kyohei Tomihira). The chorus members take their positions—as they would have during Beethoven’s times (and as they did at the Resound-performance in 2015)—to the left and right of the conductor and proceeds to sing, amazingly (though almost a given in Japan) from memory: Females with grim determination in their faces on the (audience-) left and men with bold wide stances on the right, and both equally ready to take a bit bite out of the music. Which, being principally an opera chorus, they do with dramatic gusto. If you know the work of the Bach Collegium Japan in the Bach cantatas, it will also not come as a surprise that the New National Theater Chorus’ articulation, enunciation, and pronunciation, is so darn perfect that they are easier to understand than most native German-speaking choruses in this work.


Their forcefulness and occasional fierceness actually suits the performance of the orchestra, which may have adapted to it, as it was—in this movement—playing all-out. Only on “Sternenzelt” do we get a hint of fire-sirens from the choir. The soloists, flown in just for the occasion, were all very good. Çigdem Soyarslan first came to my attention when her Jemina was the best thing about a Theater an der Wien performance of Schubert’s Lazarus… The work at hand didn’t give her the opportunity to push expectations still further, but consolidated the good impression. Mezzo Michaela Selinger is all charming sonority, Marcel Reijans proves a tenor with a surprising elegance and downright noble restraint, and Sebastian Holecek (a member of the Vienna Volksoper’s ensemble whom I first heard as Keikobad in Munich’s Frau ohne Schatten), despite having a bit of a bearish streak about his delivery, sounds darn good, too; round and warm. Once all the world is sufficiently kissed and the last of the Götterfunks fully gefreudet, the show is over and the warm and enthused audience shows its appreciation with very considerably prolonged applause. Mission accomplished—the first HIP Beethoven cycle in Japan has commenced.


Furthering my mission of immersing myself in Japanese culture as best I can—a task which pertains mostly to my most sensitive and appreciative organ, my stomach—I seek out my old college roommate (and fellow foodie) to go for some Korean Barbecue (or Yakiniku). By way of Shinjuku Station (I don’t notice much of the nearly 4 million daily travelers that apparently use this busiest of all transport hubs), I end up in Toshima and enjoy some of the best beef I’ve had. Also excellent liver (rebā) and easily the tastiest intestines (tetchan) and tripe (mino) of my life.


My friend’s little kid courteously ladles the marinated and grilled intestines on both of our plates by the chopstick full. I can tell a gourmand when I see one, and there’s a pint-sized one sitting across from me. First Beethoven One through Nine and now a cow, snout to tail—what an evening, what a week! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt, indeed.





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