BPYO 2024 European Tour - IV. Adagietto: Vienna

Jun 25, 2024 11:42:09 AM / by Jonathan Blumhofer


The Hofburg Palace in Vienna.


Few cities do nostalgia better than Vienna. An old town – it first functioned as an imperial capital starting in 1146 – the city has had lots of time to perfect that art, though the commercialization of alt-Wien (an era so memorably depicted in the pages of Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor) is a relatively recent development.


Some of the last is tacky and, frankly, annoying, particularly the bewigged vendors who cluster around the doors of the Staatsoper and Stephansplatz hawking “Mozart tours” and concerts with orchestras cheesily garbed in 18th-century attire. Interestingly, Beethoven, who lived in Vienna for considerably longer than Mozart did, doesn’t seem to garner the same attention from these fellows. Lucky for him.


Occasionally, the uniquely Viennese enthusiasm for die schöne Leiche (“the beautiful corpse”) intrudes and makes things macabre. For instance, there are countless postcards, pictures, and mugs bearing the visage of the Empress Elisabeth. Her great accomplishments in life seem to have been maintaining her exquisite beauty and avoiding setting foot in Vienna as much as possible. Yet her assassination at the hands of an anarchist in Geneva in 1898 turned “Sisi,” as she’s still known, into something of a national saint.


Sometimes the phenomenon can be subtle, surprising, or ironic (or all three). The sign designating Hugo von Hoffmanstahl’s birthplace in the Botschaftsviertel is tucked between a Tabak shop on one side and the Satchmo Café/Bar across the street. The house where Beethoven completed the Ninth Symphony is located, unexpectedly enough, on a corner on Ungargaße a half block from where the BPYO is staying.


There’s also a fascinating revisionist streak afoot in Vienna’s embrace of its musical past.



Viennese-style immortality: Anton von Webern’s star on the Ringstraße.


To judge from the star walk of musical heroes that dot the Stadtmitte, you’d think that this profoundly conservative and historically reactionary city has always been, in fact, a beacon of tolerance and unconditional love. Take Anton von Webern, who in life was anything but appreciated by his native town. Not only does the King of Klangfarbenmelodie have his star on the Opernring sidewalk just down from Herbert von Karajan’s, but he’s also got a street named after him off the Stadtpark.


Arnold Schoenberg landed even better real estate: he’s in front of the Musikverein next to his hero, Brahms. One is inclined to wonder, though, how pleased the crotchety Brahms might be to know he’s also neighbors with Paul Hindemith and Alexander von Zemlinsky.


Gustav Mahler’s here, too. You’d never have guessed that the composer-conductor had been hounded out of Vienna in 1907 by an antisemitic press – or that Austrian Nazis had any leverage over the city’s musico-cultural policy during the 20th century – from the number of pictures, busts, and statues of the great man that pop up around the old Kaiserstadt now.


Better late than never, I suppose: in the Brandauer Schloßbräu, where the BPYO lunched on Saturday, Mahler’s portrait actually shares wall space with the Austrian rapper Falco (Josef Lanner, a pop star from a very different era, is on the wall opposite both of them). His time, indeed, has come.


Despite these periodically maddening contradictions, there is an undeniable, Old World charm to Vienna. You may not hear a Strauss waltz on every corner, but you can find Johann, Jr.’s statue in the Stadtpark (not to mention one of his homes in Hietzing; the Café Dommayer, where the almost-19-year-old composer made his debut in 1844, is still operational and just a ten-minute walk from the house. They serve killer Eiskaffee and Sacher torte).


Similarly, there may be no royals in the Schloß Belvedere or the palace at Schönbrunn, but the sprawling, verdant grounds around them are living, functional parts of the local landscape, teeming with families, runners, and tourists in seeming equal numbers. Though it may not all look as it did in 1902, when Mahler completed his Fifth Symphony, much of Vienna feels like it belongs to that epoch; the tradition from which the piece hails is evidently as much a part of the atmosphere as more tangible items.



Benjamin Zander coaching a conducting student from Prague Conservatory during Friday’s side-by-side. 


Our time here was, by the standards of this tour, expansive. We arrived on Friday night, after a bus ride from Prague where, earlier in the day, the BPYO participated in a side-by-side and conducting masterclass with musicians from Prague Conservatory, and, afterwards, took a walking tour of the city’s Old Town and castle districts.


After five concerts, full-length rehearsals, and/or exchanges in seven days, a bit of time to breathe was welcome. If it wasn’t quite so expansive and spacious as the Adagietto from the Fifth can be, our Viennese weekend at least captured much that was beautiful, serene, and, occasionally, sad.


To wit: on one of the upper floors of the Staatsoper, there was a display about Arnold Rosé, the former concertmaster of both the Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic (he was also Mahler’s brother-in-law), who, after the Anschluß in 1938, was forced to flee his homeland. His daughter (and Mahler’s niece), Alma, an accomplished violinist in her own right, didn’t get out in time: she ended up interned in Auschwitz, where she founded the Women’s Orchestra but died in 1944. Both the Opera and the Philharmonic have only recently started coming to terms with their complicity with Hitlerism.


Generally, though, happier entertainments of various kinds beckoned. On the one hand, there was the amusement park in the Prater (which includes the famous Riesenrad). On another, there were a handful of concerts one could take in. Though we arrived too late on Friday to hear the Staastoper’s Falstaff, some BPYO members caught the next night’s Cosí fan tutte. That same evening, the Volksoper offered Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, though, unfortunately, we weren’t around long enough to attend the Austrian premiere of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary.


No matter: between Saturday’s walking tour of Vienna’s historic district and the Schönbrunn gardens, and Sunday afternoon’s rehearsal and concert at the Musikverein, nobody is likely leaving the place feeling that we didn’t pack as much into two days as we could have.



Benjamin Zander and the BPYO rehearsing in the Goldener Saal of Vienna’s Musikverein.


In many ways, bringing Mahler’s Fifth to Vienna was the goal of this tour. “This feels like coming home,” Benjamin Zander mentioned as we ambled through the maze-like backstage area in the Musikverein together. To be sure, the orchestra’s run-through and performance of the Fifth in that hall certainly sounded like it belonged there.


One of the interesting things about this particular tour is that, while Ben’s interpretation of the Mahler is largely the same, concert-to-concert, each of the venues shines a fresh light on the score; these myriad perspectives make it seem as though we’re examining a very large icon from different angles each time around. In Vienna, the Musikverein’s acoustic – warm and resonant as we’ve had in other places, but here somehow possessing a sheen that can perhaps best be described as akin to the iridescent hue the Goldener Saal takes on when the sun illuminates its gilded surfaces – added that extra dimension.


So did the orchestra’s grasp of the music. Pretty much all the good things on display in Hamburg carried over to Vienna. Rhythms were tight, tempos fluid, balances generally very good. For the second concert in a row, the BPYO consistently managed the work’s soft dynamics impressively.



BPYO principal horn Graham Lovely owning his solos in the Scherzo of Mahler’s Fifth on Sunday.


But the ensemble’s finest accomplishment was showcasing how fully it has internalized the spirit of Mahler’s style from Ben’s teaching and leading. The Scherzo, for instance, snapped and swung like a bone-fide Viennese waltz. The Rondo-Finale’s boisterous counterpoint gamboled; one extended episode of chugging low-string figurations sounded as jolly and gemütlich as ever. The Adagietto sang – there’s no better word to describe it – about as gloriously as it could. Top to bottom, Sunday’s Fifth was the most Mahler-sounding performance we’ve yet gotten of this monster and the sold-out Musikverein responded to it with thunder.


That it almost overshadowed Zlatomir Fung’s performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto was no fault of Zlatomir’s (for duration alone, I calculated that you can fit three-plus Schumanns into one Mahler Five). His account of this charmer has only grown richer and more flexible as the tour’s proceeded; Sunday’s also benefited from the fact that he’d recovered from a bug that had been ailing him for the last couple of concerts.



Zlatomir Fung, the BPYO, and Benjamin Zander playing Schumann in Vienna. 


Sunday, playing with seemingly effortless precision and his trademark pure tone, Zlatomir brought out the poetic qualities of the Schumann’s first two movements as well as the bristly character that undergirds its finale. The latter trait, I thought, might have owed to a cell phone going off – in Vienna! In the Musikverein! – during one of the “Langsam’s” tenderest passages.


Apparently not. When I was chatting with him post-concert, he said the phone had registered in his mind but hadn’t bothered him: “it was a nice reminder that what we’re doing isn’t life or death” was the gist of his response. More power to Zlatomir for his magnanimity – though at least a couple others from our number were feeling less than charitable towards the unknown malefactor.


The orchestra sounded, as in Basel and Prague, a bit big for the piece. There was a plushness to some of their attacks (especially in the finale) that gave the score more of a big-boned quality than it needs. Still, the whole effort moved well and sensitively. Plus, having a bunch of cellos onstage meant that Zlatomir could include the section in his latest encore, his own arrangement of Schumann’s “Mondnacht” for nine celli.


That selection proved to be a sweet, fitting follow-up to what must count as a triumphant Vienna debut. Also particularly touching was the night’s “Nimrod” closer.


It’s an open question whether or not a Mahler symphony requires a chaser; if the bigger work is, indeed, “embrac[ing] the world” (as Mahler put it), an encore might be superfluous. But it’s hard to argue with Ben’s reasoning that “Nimrod” is a statement of enduring friendship and a gift from orchestra to audience. On Sunday, it also sounded incredibly beautiful.



BPYO woodwinds and brasses taking flight in the Musikverein.


One of the overarching themes of this journey has been the idea of passing on a tradition of music making between Ben and his younger charges. For orchestral musicians, there’s no better city in which to do this than Vienna.


The Musikverein has a particularly complex legacy: two historic performances on that very stage were lodged in my mind during the BPYO’s concert, both of them miraculously preserved on recordings. The first is Bruno Walter’s intense Mahler Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic, taped just days before the Anschluß in 1938. The other is Wilhelm Furtwängler’s astonishing, terrifying Brahms Second Symphony with the same ensemble from January 1945.


Now this particular BPYO group and their Mahler Fifth is part of the building’s story, too. Thankfully, their appearance isn’t freighted with the significance of the above-mentioned accounts. But, as with their Hamburg concert, Sunday’s was fully worthy of the night’s forum and the Musikverein’s Mahler heritage.


How much the players are aware of this is anyone’s guess – they’re good and young, after all – but there did seem to be a real appreciation for the hall and the opportunity just had as we hiked across the Ringstraße to dinner.


“This really feels like the culmination” of our tour, Ben noted happily as he was making his way around the tables afterwards. It did, spiritually, at least. But we’re not to the mountaintop quite yet. One more stop awaits and in a place with a notable and significant Mahler traditional all its own: Berlin.



Benjamin Zander and the BPYO basking in the applause from Sunday’s audience in the sold-out Musikverein.


Photo credits: Paul Mardy


Topics: BPYO, Benjamin Zander, Tour of Possibility, 2024 BPYO European Tour

Written by Jonathan Blumhofer

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