So much to say, and yet so little that needs saying. It’s the Vienna Philharmonic.
We have been extremely fortunate lately here in Taipei to have some really wonderful ensembles lined up. As you may have read, I saw the Ensemble Intercontemporain recently, their first visit to Taiwan, as I understand, and aside from Vienna these past two nights, there are also two-night lineups of the Concertgebouw, Munich Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and Berlin Philharmonic coming up throughout the concert season (with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony in the much more distant future), so… I need to save my money.
Anyway, that being said, yes! Three of the major candidates for ‘best orchestra in the world,’ as objective and nebulous a distinction as that may be to attribute to one ensemble or another, are coming to Taiwan this year! Berlin has been here in the more recent past, I understand, but it’s been at least ten years (I think eleven) since Vienna has visited us, and am I ever glad to be here for it.
It was one of those things that you get so worked up about that you almost don’t want to try… does that even make sense? Like fighting crowds to get an autograph, or waiting in line, or being the one of the few to get some coveted thing thrown from some star at a rock concert or whatever. Just about anything first-come-first-serve gets my anxiety spiking. I was so anxious about getting these tickets because, at least in my mind, the whole country was (or should have been) chomping at the bit to put in their order. The purchasing process for these is antiquated at best, and involves a faxed (or scanned) application form, images of credit card, and telephone calls, and yes, it sounds like identity theft waiting to happen, but the Vienna Philharmonic is worth a little bit of identity theft.
In any case, I got my phone call to confirm my purchases (for both nights. Also, in contrast, buying tickets through the other local ticketing agencies for our local ensembles is a breeze. Their online ticketing system is wonderful). The seats aren’t my seats, the seats I picked out for my NSO season ticket, as those were outrageously expensive (something upwards of $200, maybe more than $300 a pop, I can’t remember), but they’re still really fantastically good.
I’d originally thought “I’ll just pick one night from the two days, the one that has the most appealing program to me.” And then, of course, there were pieces on the program for each evening that I wanted to hear. I mean, it doesn’t really matter what it is; it’s the Vienna Philharmonic. I’d listen to them play something as unexciting to me as Haydn’s first five symphonies and not be disappointed (even though it’d have been nice to have a bit of Mahler on the program…. no. 4? 7?!) This was probably strategic, and I figured I’d regret it if I didn’t just go to both, so I splurged for both nights, and naturally I am very pleased I did. I paid for these tickets months ago, but have had “October 13 and 14” in my head ever since then, and I’m not exaggerating when I say my heart fluttered a little bit every time I looked at my watch and it said “10-13.” The time had finally come. I was also a bit too excited to sleep well the night before.
For those of you that have been there, it’s nothing special on a worldwide scale, especially when compared to some (or most) other concert halls or arts centers (even though the ensemble it houses is quite nice), but the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta is a nice little place. There’s something Southernly classy and fancy about dressing up and having a cocktail in the lounge/lobby before a concert. That is decidedly not the situation here. While our National Concert Hall is indeed beautiful, it hasn’t the black tie feel when most people are dressed like they might also be going to the local fast food joint for a ‘fancy’ meal beforehand. I digress. My point is that I dressed up. Both nights. More than usual. And the weather was cooler, so I could manage to wear a jacket and not look like I’d been on a treadmill in someone’s attic.
I’ve never been so nervous (or maybe just anxious) going to a concert. I’m walking into this thinking “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” And it is. The Vienna Philharmonic is, as stated above, one of the most prestigious ensembles on earth, a strong candidate for “the best” if we were to stoop to making such distinctions, and I’m sitting here in front of them. I have their records, under Abbado or Mehta or Bernstein or Mackerras or Kubelik, Boulez, Solti, Kleiber, Fürtwangler, and more, and here they are, led those two nights by Christoph Eschenbach. And (bear with me) it got me to thinking:
A stupid question, I know, but… what is the Vienna Philharmonic? The same question could be asked about any orchestra really. “The Chicago Symphony is known for its brass,” or “the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan is know for” this or that, and on and on, but what is the orchestra? The Vienna Philharmonic is as much a work of art as the hall they play in or the pieces they play, but it must be more than the sum of its parts. In its more than 150 years, how many people have filled those seats? How many entirely different rosters has the Vienna Philharmonic had? Obviously no one is still around from when Mahler graced the Musikverein, so what is still around? What makes it what it is?
Standards. History. Culture. The Vienna Philharmonic is an idea, is it not? Again, this could be said of any orchestra, but I’m thinking of it in the context of all the recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic I have, and in reality, how many different Vienna Philharmonics it is… there are different people (at least one or two, for sure) in each recording. And the Vienna Philharmonic that sat in front of me these two nights was equally stunning and magical beyond my expectations, but obviously not the exact same as those I have heard so many times. Granted, I have no Vienna recordings of any of the pieces that were on the program those evenings save the Beethoven, but the idea stands. This is what I pondered that evening as I prepared to view what was, in my mind, somewhere between seeing a modern wonder of the world and meeting your favorite superhero in person.
As suspected, this will have to be two articles.
I expected that the standard issue jeans-and-hoodie-wearing college student or old frumpy bored couple would not be the order of the day, and I was right. Pulling up to the concert hall I’ve been to maybe now a hundred times, it was lined with Benzes and Bentleys and sharp-dressed drivers finding a place to wait to pick up their patrons. A different audience altogether, and I was instantly glad I decided to dress up. There was a fragrance of fancy things and perfume in the air, like fine leather you’re uneasy about sitting on. The lobby and hallways were satisfyingly abuzz with anticipation, as a $100 price tag on tickets tends to limit the crowd to only the most dedicated of attendees. My vigilante conductor friend, if present, was likely relegate to the back rows of the fourth floor, which is where you should sit if you intend on moving almost at all.
In any case, this is the backstory that leads up to two of the most anticipated concerts I will probably ever attend. What could top this? Maybe hearing like, Mahler’s second (or third or any of them) actually in the Musikverein. It’s hard to top this. Stay tuned in the next day or two for the actual review of two of the most magical nights in my history of concerts.