Wednesday, March 12, 2014

concert reviews: Vienna Philharmonic and Väsen

The Vienna Philharmonic, perhaps the most distinguished orchestra in the world (an elderly and rather deaf lady to whom I reported that I'd been to them looked blank for a moment, and then said, "I heard 'harmonica'") came back to Berkeley - I reviewed them when they were here before, three years ago - for another three concerts, this time scheduled to be with three different conductors.

My editor wanted to send me to review the Saturday concert, because it was being conducted by the new music director of the Boston Symphony, whom we were curious to hear out here. But my schedule made that impossible, and between Friday's and Sunday's we picked Sunday's, mostly because I wanted to hear the VPO play Bruckner's Sixth enough that I might have bought my own ticket.

Sunday proved fortunate for two reasons, though someone at the concert, learning that I was a reviewer, began to berate me for not reviewing the first concert in the series, even though I said it probably wouldn't see print soon enough to affect sales for the last concert. The first reason is that the Friday concert got drastically poor reviews. The second reason is that the scheduled conductor of the Sunday concert cancelled at the last minute, leaving his Saturday colleague to substitute for him. So I got to hear him after all.

One of the editors, reacting to this remarkable save by the fates, kindly commented on the good luck I bring wherever I go. Well, not so good for the ailing conductor who had to be replaced, and I have someone on a bed of anguish whom I dearly wish I could have brought some good luck to when it could still have helped, but it was a kind thought.

My review mentioned the self-flagellating panel discussions on the history of the orchestra, but I had no space to get into that and only time for a little of it. (Nothing about the orchestra's sex ratio that I heard: that was not yet an issue at the time of the world wars. Expelling all its Jews and joining the Nazi Party en masse, however, was.) What most intrigued me, however, was the talk by this unreconstructed Schoenbergian I mentioned. He mocked the idea that art should be a constant to hold on to in a changing world, and the audience duly tittered. He believed that the function of art is to act as a shock wave heralding changes in society. That put him in direct conflict not only with the following speaker, an orchestra representative who mentioned how its concerts provided solace (his word) to the Austrian people during World War I, as well as its role in acting as a cultural ambassador for the Emperor Karl's peace feelers - neither of which you could do by offending listeners with artistic shock waves - but with the lush, moving performance of Schoenberg's own early, pre-atonal Verklärte Nacht that we'd just heard. I say he was speaking arrant nonsense. The function of art is to move and affect the hearer or viewer emotionally. If you can do that by being edgy, fine, but that's not the only permissible way; and getting edgier and edgier to outdo previous generations of edginess rapidly yields diminishing returns: you wind up triumphantly holding up the package and leaving out the contents.

But that wasn't all I did. Seeing that I would be with the VPO in the afternoon, I checked to see what the Freight and Salvage, just a few blocks away downtown, was playing in the evening. Väsen: "leading Swedish folk revivalists." Sounded good, so I went. I used to attend lots of folk concerts. I've trailed off for various reasons, one of which is that this prime venue is a long drive from home, and my principal nudge to go, a friend who would call me up and say things like "I want to hear Dougie MacLean at the Freight!", was long ago bought by Microsoft and shipped off to Seattle. It's been so long, in fact, that this was my first visit to the Freight's no longer so new quarters downtown. I was impressed. It's superior in sight lines, comfort, general maneuverability, and - above all - restrooms to the old home, at little cost in acoustics or in warm and toasty atmosphere. It's still too dark to read in, even before the houselights go down. I didn't see anyone I knew, but the house was filled with people who looked like I ought to know them. I sat there in contentment as the peaceful and relaxing sound of viola, guitar, and nykelharpa (a long viol with accordion-like keys as string stops) filled the air, and let Schoenbergian artistic theory go hang itself.

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