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.


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.


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.



The Tetzlaff Quartet: Crystal-Clear in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium

Tetzlaff Quartet, 2010 Photo: © Alexandra Vosding, courtesy Duke Perfmormances.

Tetzlaff Quartet, 2010 Photo: © Alexandra Vosding, courtesy Duke Perfmormances.

It’s easy to decide to go a concert when you already know and love the music that will be played, but how much more rewarding it is to become smitten with music you doubted you’d even like. I went to hear the brilliant Tetzlaff Quartet (Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Elisabeth Kufferath, violin; Hanna Weinmeister, viola, and Tanja Tetzlaff, cello) play Beethoven; I came away with a newfound interest in the very different music of Alban Berg.

The Tetzlaff Quartet performance in Baldwin Auditorium October 19 was the second in this season’s Chamber Arts series of Duke Performances, but the first concert I’d been able to attend in the newly renovated hall. The pieces played by this virtuosic quartet of German and Austrian musicians (who come together several times a year to perform in some of the world’s finest concert halls) highlighted the acoustic qualities of the new Baldwin. The Berg work, in particular, would not have been the ravishing thing it was in Reynolds Theater.

Portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910; in the collection of the Vienna Museum. Credit: Art Media/Heritage-Images

Portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910; in the collection of the Vienna Museum.
Credit: Art Media/Heritage-Images

Alban Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg’s in Vienna early in the 20th century, along with Anton Webern. Together they formed a new Viennese school of music, a foray into the new analogous to the new visual art of the Vienna Secession. It turns out that Schoenberg had a foot in both camps, a piece of knowledge that came my way recently when I visited “Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900,” at the National Gallery, London. The show included several portraits by Schoenberg, the earlier of which were quite dreadful. Not having any commissions, he wrangled sitters from his family and friends. Fortunately, by the time he painted this portrait of his 25-year-old student, he had acquired a modicum of technique.

Berg began to write his Lyric Suite, performed so touchingly by the Tetzlaff, in 1925. It seems that he fell in love with a woman not his wife in that year, and the Lyric Suite is a passionate coded declaration of love for this woman. It combines Schoenbergian theory with Mahlerian, even Wagnerian, romanticism with extraordinary eloquence, grasping the soul while titillating the intellect.

The work has six sections; the sounds in one feed the sounds in the next, until it circles back around. Many of these sounds are very delicate, as light as insect wings brushing a screen before vanishing like a breath, but as a whole the work is robust, sinuous, replete with human emotion. The quartet made a great wholeness out of the crystalline notes, communicating tenderness, passion and a brilliant self-awareness that eschewed sentimentality.

The concert opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, op. 20, no. 2, a very pretty thing with all the instruments “talking” to each other and motifs racing and chasing each other in the final movement. This quartet is considered the first real string quartet–in its time it was modern–and it made a clever prelude for the Berg Lyric Suite. Following intermission, the players went back a little in time to the timeless Beethoven (whose death mask I’d just seen in the London show, along with drawings made of his hands as he lay dying in 1827–the face was much diminished, but the hands were large and powerful).

The Tetzlaff played one of the late quartets, No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132, from 1825, giving the audience a chance to think back to last year’s concert in Reynolds by the Belcea Quartet, who played op. 130, including the Grosse Fugue, and op. 131, and to contrast the acoustics of the halls and the styles and tones of the two quite different musical quartets, as well as the music itself.

No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132 has five movements, and its opening includes a theme that appears in both the Grosse Fugue and op. 131, but as played by the Tetzlaff, it conveys very different emotions. The Tetzlaff mysteriously combines the robust and earthy with a limpid ethereality that evokes the eternal return. Their playing is so clean and clear that it runs over you like spring water as the feelings run through you: an untormented acceptance of fate, of death; the piquant clarity of vision accompanying reprieve and new strength; the tremendous emotion at the awareness of blood coursing in and out of your heart; the joy of the great dance of life, everlasting.

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