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Vienna Philharmonic Grinds It Out

The last time that the Vienna Philharmonic came to Washington was in 2003, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society, as that organization had done regularly since 1956. The Austrian ensemble's long-awaited return, again sponsored by WPAS last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, was both welcome and, perhaps inevitably, disappointing. As noted by Washington Post critic Tim Page of the 2003 concert, the problem with the orchestra's previous visit came down to the choice of conductor (Nikolaus Harnoncourt), and that seemed to be the cause of the less satisfying aspects of last night's concert, too. Lorin Maazel has been able to work magic in recent concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra and the young musicians of his Castleton Festival, but the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic proved resistant.

The high point of this program was a roiling performance of Sibelius's seventh symphony (heard several times in the last few years), which Maazel shaped in beautiful ways, crafting those blossoming crescendos to build just the right frisson of exultation. These moments are often crowned by the appearance of the triumphant trombone motif that Sibelius once marked with the name of his wife, Aino, but later claimed was not in any way programmatic. The score shows Sibelius being quite adventurous with dissonant structures, which Maazel made shimmer rather than clash, just as they should. The sound of this orchestra is distinguished by its rather transparent, glowing violin sound: the violins often hover warmly rather than always dominating the texture with an impenetrable wall of more strident sound as in so many other orchestras. This allowed many interesting sounds, well worth hearing, to come out of the texture from the low strings (the lush section for violas, cellos, and basses near the beginning of the single movement, for example) and woodwinds especially. Here Maazel sounded truly in his element, his beat allowing a free rubato that made the music more expressive, less about anxious tension, except in the scherzo-like section in the middle, which still never felt forced. This performance seethed in this way, down to the final ardent yearning of the upward-slicing semitone of the final resolution.

This concert was co-sponsored by the Kennedy Center because it happened to fall at the start of its Music of Prague, Budapest, and Vienna festival. Sadly, as a result, the orchestra did not play its all-Sibelius program (symphonies 1, 5, and 7 -- heard via online radio from Vienna a couple weeks ago). We had to have a Mozart first half, which unfortunately sounded like the neglected B side of the orchestra's touring program. Maazel did nothing particularly remarkable with either the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro or the overplayed Symphony No. 40 (G minor, K. 550), except insist on taking some of the fast tempos rather slow. These tempi were apparently slower than what the musicians may have liked, as the orchestra seemed to bridle against them like an impatient thoroughbred. Maazel, whose intensive, weighted gestures were translated into a slightly stodgy, cumbersome sound, may over-think or over-weight his Mozart -- the only moment of lightness really was in the trio of the menuetto, where his gestures relaxed. It was all played well, with a watchmaker's precision, but it felt lifeless and often plodding.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Lorin Maazel and Vienna Philharmonic offer some surprises (Washington Post, March 2)

Tim Smith, Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic reach impressive heights in DC visit (Baltimore Sun, March 2)
Strauss's suite from Der Rosenkavalier is obviously the bread and butter of the Vienna Philharmonic, but here too Maazel's interpretation seemed a little affected and mannered, almost comically so in the waltz sections. Chalk some of this up to Maazel feeling indisposed: the illness that caused him to cancel the VPO concerts in Scandinavia still had him a bit under the weather. The rich sound of the orchestra was nonetheless a pleasure to hear, especially that charming solo group section led by solo violin, and it is an ensemble that can turn on a dime, a sports car with a stage-filling number of working parts. The roster, albeit now actually featuring a smattering of musicians who do not wear tuxedos, still strikes one as so predominantly male. As if to underscore the importance of traditions with this orchestra, Maazel launched into a long encore, the name of which he jokingly said he could not recall, An der schönen blauen Donau, by Johann Strauss, Jr.

The Vienna Philharmonic's concert at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night (March 3, 8 pm) will be broadcast live on NPR. The next visiting orchestra on the WPAS schedule is the European Union Youth Orchestra (April 15, 4 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

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