Vienna Philharmonic in Berkeley!

Vienna Philharmonic concerts in Berkeley

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has been rated as one of the 5 best orchestras world-wide, in the past. Their ability to perform the masterpieces of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and many other composers is well known. After a 20-year lull, they came to Berkeley this past weekend, and I heard two of their three concerts. The orchestra does not have a permanent conductor. They give concerts with a series of well-known guest conductors.

It was Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov who led the two concerts I attended, and I must regretfully say that I was disappointed.

The concert on Saturday evening, Feb, 26, 2011 started with the Schumann Symphony #2. This is one of my all-time favorite musical works. I played it when I was a member of a New York orchestra years ago. While all the notes were there, what I missed was a sense of the pathos, sadness, and resignation that the composer expressed in the 3rd movement. That is the one movement that is slow, and even the program notes for the evening told us of the fact that the composer was physically and emotionally ill, and that much of his tragedy of his life is expressed in that 3rd movement. Yet… I must say that I did not even hear a true pianissimo executed by the orchestra! I know that the players are capable of it, because I have heard them perform under a different conductor, where there was much greater adherence to the dynamic markings in the music.

My sense is that the overall total framework of this work was certainly properly played. What was missing, however, was any sense of finer detail, subtle changes in tempi, and the shadings of color and phrasing that distinguish an outstanding performance from an ordinary one.

The second half of Saturday’s program was the Symphony #2 of Johannes Brahms. Here again, this music that this orchestra could likely play from memory. They might produce a credible performance even without a conductor. While the music was OK… the interpretation did not allow the listener to hear anything new. I did not hear a single section in which this group revealed anything new or exciting. Sure, the music as written by the composer has to be followed. However, a conductor should attempt to show us some sort of inner detail, some level of color, detail or musical expression that makes the interpretation special. It is that aspect that was once again missing for me.

On Sunday at 3 PM, the VPO performed music composed by one of their former conductors, Gustav Mahler. They played his Symphony #6. This is a very long and complex work, and I have to say that certain sections, particularly the opening movement were satisfying and well-played. Again, for me there was an absence of true commitment to dynamic changes, and lack of emphasis on producing an intimate, quiet sound. Yes… the louder spots in this work are much more prevalent. It was not until the very end of the final movement that the very dramatic pizzicato ending was nicely produced.

Tags: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Berkeley concert, review

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