Crème de la Crème

Carolina Performing Arts presented the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra last night in Memorial Hall, with Franz Welser-Möst conducting. The music was sublime.

They played Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), op. 4, as arranged for string orchestra (it was originally for a sextet), which is very beautiful and deeply consoling. The Vienna Philharmonic painted the strong feelings from the inspiring poem about forgiving love (by Richard Dehmel, 1896) in saturated complex hues that streamed and flowed and blended. The liquidity of the music, the total integration of all the types and planes of sound, the pure elegance of its expression put the listener in thrall as it told the poem without recourse to mere words.

The Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D.944, “The Great,” was similar in terms of flow, if quite a lot more sprightly. What a delightful piece of music, light-infused,  buoyant with life, with lots of switchbacks and swirls, and fast-changing colors, tones and tempi. In the first and fourth movements there are charming references to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” that seem like both homages and the preening of a young artist; in this performance, they sparkled on the surface of the river of sounds before moving into the past as other notes seized their days.

Hearing one of the greatest orchestras in the world was as marvelous as expected, but the added benefit of seeing an orchestra is seeing the conductor (each one so different)–and watching Maestro Welser-Möst at work was also wonderful. He’s slim and compact, except for his hair, and wears a well-cut tailcoat. (In fact, all the men in the orchestra wear tailcoats–and there are very few women–I could see only five or six last night.) He also stands on a podium without a rail between him and the audience, so that the elegant line is unmarred (just as in the music). Rarely raising his arms above shoulder level, he has a complete language for the left hand and another for the right, in which he holds a short baton. He turns this way and that, gathering in the sounds, often making smoothing motions. He didn’t tap his feet, or keep a rhythm by shifting his body, but as “The Great” grew in intensity, he began to vibrate all over–you could see it in his crown of silver hair. So much passion under the reserve.

What a night of transportive music.

The sense of reaching a cultural summit was also very powerful. To become cultured (a desirable goal), I learned in childhood, not only must one read, but look at art and listen to music and go to plays in person. Ideally one would travel, and listen to music in its many homes: a person steeped in the great traditions of European classical music would naturally have Vienna’s Musikverein among her desired destinations, in order to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in its Golden Room.

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Not at Memorial Hall. The Vienna Philharmonic with Franz Welser-Möst at the Musikverein. Photo © Richard Schuster.

 

I will probably never make it to the Musikverein, but at last I have heard the superb playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, hearing for myself the standard-setting integrated sounds, fluid dynamics, and emotional clarity of this orchestra. Without leaving home! I’m struggling to express how grateful and enriched I feel to have been one of the 1200 reverent listeners packed into the hall. And that it was the same hall in which I heard my first live symphony orchestra (the NC Symphony, under Benjamin Swalin) 55 years ago only increases my sense of having been on a long strange trip among the thorny hierarchies of quality and value in music and art, and of having come out onto a cliff with a wide view of glory.

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Crème de la Crème with whipped cream on top: The encore in Memorial Hall 2/27/17. Backstage phone photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

What I didn’t expect, but received, from this concert was a sense of cultural validation, of personal connection with some of what’s best in the European musical tradition, and, most powerfully, of belonging to that culture–that rarefied culture at the pinnacle of refinement. CPA brings many fine orchestras to Memorial, but no matter how great the music, none has had the same impact on my sense of identity.

Suddenly, the fantastic multi-cultural work being done by CPA and the other area university presenters takes on a new look. I go to all these events because I want to know about all these people and places–I’m a traveller–but at each one, there will be people who feel like they have come home, or that home has come to back them, acknowledging and validating them. (I know, I know, if it weren’t for Eurocentric White Privilege, I would have thought of that years ago.)

We are living in a thoroughly frightening time. It becomes more vital every day to visit each others’ homes, with curiosity and open hearts. Aside from bringing the aesthetic bliss, this is what cultural arts programs do–invite us in to all the houses so that our neighbors are no longer strangers and increasingly, we can all be at home in the world.

 

 

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