Days 8 and 9: Britten Meets Bruckner
November 1, 2003
Thursday night the orchestra performed the Britten War Requiem in Linz. This city is the birthplace of both Anton Bruckner (whose seventh symphony the orchestra played earlier in this residency) and music director Franz Welser-Möst. However, it's been almost ten years since Welser-Möst last conducted here.
Linz is even today a center of steel-making and machinery manufacturing. That industrial base, already established by the second world war, made it a bombing target. Roughly three-quarters of the town was levelled. A good portion of the Linz Cathedral, one of the churches where Bruckner was organist and where he composed his E-minor mass, was destroyed in the bombing, and has been restored. The portion of the original which survives includes parts of the organ on which Bruckner performed, but unfortunately the instrument isn't in playable condition. Several of the old wing's windows date from Bruckner's time, including one in which he's depicted standing with Beethoven. The latter's brother Johann had a pharmacy in Linz; the building still stands, and it's still a pharmacy. Beethoven also finished work on one of his symphonies in this city.
Walk up and down the streets of this city's Old Quarter, and you'll see plaques designating various buildings where musicians and composers have lived. Linz is proud of its musical heritage, but not of its role in the second world war. The Linz Cathedral is today remembered not only as one of Bruckner's churches, but also as the site of Adolph Hitler's confirmation in 1904. The Hartheim Institute, which supports the disabled, was taken over by the Nazis for unspeakable human experiments. Although our city guide, Frau Gundi S. Grabner, was noticeably uncomfortable discussing these matters, she didn't duck our group's tough questions.
Bruckner's final resting place is near Linz. He's interred at the chapel in St. Florian's monastery, in a location where the organ can always be heard. Often we find connections within connections here, and Welser-Moest is using the St. Florian Boychoir for these performances of the Britten War Requiem. The adult chorus is the Wiener Singverein, of which Welser-Möst is an honorary member.
The concert hall where they played Thursday night is the Brucknerhaus -- named for Bruckner, of course. It was built in 1974, and the Cleveland Orchestra's is the first in a series of concerts which celebrate their 30th anniversary season. You'd think that the orchestra would have brought their Bruckner program here, but instead Welser-Möst is conducting the Britten War Requiem. Maybe this performance is a preview (or warmup) for the two they'll give in Vienna. In any case, it's clear that Welser-Möst intended to make something of a statement through the Britten's strong antiwar sentiments. (Vienna, by the way, seems to have developed something of a taste for Britten. Recently the Stattsoper has staged his opera Billy Budd; the Volksoper did Midsummer Night's Dream, and Death in Venice is scheduled for 2006.)
The orchestra rehearsed briefly about an hour before the concert, so they could adjust to an acoustic that's very different from the Musikverein. It's less live in the Brucknerhaus, so Welser-Möst told them to soften their articulation. He also reminded them to listen to each other more intently, and to be careful not to play too loudly - "It sounds better in the hall than it sounds onstage," he suggested.
Franz Welser-Möst is known for his support and advocacy of persons with disabilities, and particularly for his support of the Hartheim Institute. The musicians of the orchestra surprised him with a donation to the organization. Before beginning the program, he announced to the audience that he was dedicating this concert to the Hartheim.
Like all the other Cleveland Orchestra concerts during this residency, this one was sold out. Even the least desirable seats near the stage were filled. The Stehplatz (standing area) audience in the back of the house spilled down into the aisles.
In the War Requiem of 1962, Britten follows in the footsteps of Vaughan Williams. The latter used English texts, primarily Walt Whitman's, in his 1936 Dona Nobis Pacem, a powerful antiwar statement composed on the eve of Europe's entry into the war. Britten adopts words by war poet Wilfred Owen. Both texts and music are uncompromising. There is no glory, only anguish and futility. Britten refused to take sides; he meant the War Requiem as a denunciation of the wickedness of war, not of men.
The work ends with a deeply moving Requiescant in pace sung softly by the chorus. At its conclusion Thursday night, Franz Welser-Möst held his baton. When he finally let it fall, the applause began almost tentatively. The audience called Welser-Möst (and soloists Melanie Diener, Michael Schade, and Thomas Hampson) back for six bows. Some of the strongest applause, and the loudest cries of "bravo," were for Welser-Möst's solo bow. That's not surprising; after all, this is his home town.
The response to the Friday concert in Vienna was even more powerful.
Soprano Ricarda Merbeth replaced the indisposed Melanie Diener in this performance. Britten calls for a orchestra divided into a large and small group. The tenor and baritone were in the customary location downstage next to the podium, but both sopranos sang from upstage, between the orchestras. Diener wore white, which produced a stunning -- almost angelic -- visual effect among all the concert black of the orchestra and chorus. Merbeth's performance Friday in the Lacrimosa (the Latin text is intertwined with Owen's portrait of a fallen soldier, Move Him Into the Sun) literally drew tears.
Michael Schade's delivery of his first Owen line, "What passing bells for these who die as cattle," was tinged with the bitterness that characterizes so much of this work's text. He and Thomas Hampson sang their final duet, Let us Sleep Now, with a depth of feeling that would be difficult to surpass.
The St. Florian Boychoir, a group whose origins date to the 11th century, was located just outside the house doors near the stage. In Britten's Offertorium, the composer set the Owen poem, The Parable of the Old Men and the Young, an ironic inversion of the Biblical Abraham and Isaac story. He melds this with the Hostias of the Mass, sung by the boys, and a weird, unsettling singsong motif played on a harmonium. The boys alternated with their Latin lines with Owen's "But the old man would not so, but slew his son, - And half the seed of Europe, one by one." The effect was haunting.
The chorus for this performance, the Wiener Singverein has a remarkably wide dynamic range, from a clearly articulated pianissimo to an unstrained fortissimo. Their expressive range is equally wide, and their clear diction made every word audible. All the English and Latin texts were provided in the printed program (programs are extra cost options for Musikverein audience members, by the way), with a German translation. Unfortunately, the translation didn't quite capture the mood of the English as well as it might have. Perhaps the program authors adapted the text from a German performing edition of the War Requiem. It's been my experience that the compromises necessary to make translations fit the music's rhythm and phrasing often damage the sense of the text.
After the concluding Requiescant in pace, Welser-Möst again left time for the performance to exhale: I counted a full twenty seconds. Then he released his baton, folded his hands, and bowed slightly to the musicians. The applause that followed went on for a full ten minutes, calling Welser-Moest and the soloists back again and again. In all Welser-Möst took nine bows, the soloists seven, and the audience gave (by a small margin) their strongest applause and cries of "bravo" for Welser-Möst's solo bows. By the end of the ten minutes, almost everyone was on his feet.
The orchestra will perform the Britten again Saturday night. Then the residency will be over - for now. But reports are that Welser-Möst plans a trip here again in two years. Vienna will be waiting expectantly.
1 November, 10:05am
The Cleveland Orchestra continues to draw full houses and standing ovations. David Roden reports on their Thursday and Friday concerts performing Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.
Listen in RealPlayer or Windows Media.
The Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra went back to his home town last night in Austria. Forty-three year old Franz Welser-Möst took the orchestra to Linz for their first performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. The subject of the war and going home was also close to one of his musicians. Mark Urycki has the story...
The Cleveland Orchestra is spending what it calls a “residency” in Vienna Austria. The ten day trip allows the orchestra to get to know the hall in which it plays, and allows the Viennese to get acquainted with the orchestra. The long stay in one city also allows orchestra members extra chances to get out and about. Mark Urycki reports...
Day 8: Wien Wine
November 1, 2003
After the final Saturday show, conductor Franz Welser-Möst is holding a private reception for the orchestra at a traditional Vienna hueriger (pronounced HOY rig gur). These country restaurants (now part of the nearby suburbs) can be spotted by the evergreen branches hanging outside their doors. The food is buffet style - step up to the counter and pick out what you want.
The specialty is the house new wine. The good heurigers keep with tradition and bottle their own wine. A white ribbon on the evergreen branch over the door means the Riesling wine is ready. A red ribbon means the red varieties are available.
The waitresses go for that low-cut blouse look and the entertainment (besides the waitresses) comes from a particular type of folk music called Schrammelmusik that uses accordion, violin, and guitar.
Days 6 & 7: A World Series of Orchestras?
October 29, 2003
Shortly after we arrived here, a few of the musicians noticed something intriguing - the Vienna Philharmonic was scheduled to perform part of the Cleveland Orchestra's repertoire. On Saturday and Monday, Zubin Mehta conducted them in Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. Then, this coming Thursday, Christian Thielemann will lead the Philharmonic in the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony, which Cleveland played on Tuesday.
This juxtaposition is probably just a coincidence, but still it's hard to avoid seeing some competition here.
And so far, the Cleveland Orchestra seems to scoring a lot of points.
I attended the Philharmonic's Thursday performance of Till. It was a well thought out, thoroughly musical reading. It wasn't hard to see why many people (and not just Vienna residents) consider the Vienna Philharmonic the world's best orchestra. That's quite a reputation, and it's seldom challenged.
It was probably just my overactive imagination, but when Franz Welser-Möst walked onstage to conduct the Strauss here Tuesday night, it almost seemed as if the conductor I knew had stayed behind in Cleveland. Much of Welser-Möst's modest podium manner and economy of gesture had vanished. He bobbed and weaved, seemingly using his entire body to communicate his interpretation to the Cleveland band. Mark Urycki said it looked like a dance to him, and certainly I've never seen Welser-Möst so animated. I was seated in a loge on house left, so I often caught glimpses of his face. It was lit up with a joyous grin. I could almost see Welser-Möst as the impish Till Eulenspiegel himself.
Of course there are other conductors who are this physically expressive (and more so). But some of them often seem to be putting on a show, entertaining the audience with their acrobatics without having much effect on the orchestra's music making. That wasn't the case here. Everyone in the Musikverein could see the electricity crackling between the maestro and the musicians. Welser-Möst's tempos were brisk, the players' articulation was crisp and clear in the Musikverein's warm, wooden acoustic, and Strauss's phrases were shaped to suit the devilish Till. Near the end of the tale, when the judge sentenced Till the troublemaker to death for his antics, Welser-Möst set up another challenge: the trombones (playing the judge) did their best to drown out Daniel McKelway's clarinet (as Till). Till's musical nose-thumbing escape was laced with jubilation - am I going too far to suggest that Welser-Möst and the Clevelanders may all have that in common with their protagonist?
Today was a rehearsal day for the orchestra. They polished the Britten War Requiem in two separate sessions, as Franz Welser-Möst incorporated the Wiener Singverein and St. Florian Boychoir into the work. They'll perform it in Linz on Thursday.
30 October, 1:15am
The Cleveland Orchestra is performing in Vienna for a residency. By chance, two works from their repertoire were identical to pieces played just a few days before and after by "the home team," the Vienna Philharmonic. David Roden reports on how audiences and critics responded to Cleveland's performance.
Listen in RealPlayer or Windows Media as David Roden reviews Tuesday night's concert.
A great battle between giants is being waged in Vienna Austria. The Cleveland Orchestra is competing with the Vienna Philharmonic as the world’s greatest orchestra. They are playing in the same concert hallsometimes on the same day. A half dozen newspapers have sent critics to review Cleveland and its Austrian conductor, Franz Welser Möst. Although that’s all great fun in the musical world, educators have also taken note. High school students from Vienna were invited to sit in on Cleveland’s rehearsal. Mark Urycki reports...