Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bécsi Philharmonikus

WOW!!! Tonight (December 7 - sorry to take so long to post!), Dan and I went to see the Bécsi Filharmonikus (Vienna Philharmonic) at the Művészetek Palotája (Palace of Arts) here in Budapest. This concert was a tour concert for the ensemble and the conductor was Michael Tilson Thomas from the San Francisco Symphony.  The concert was amazing!!!!

Let me say that I was excited for this concert for many reasons.

The venue:
This concert took place at the Művészetek Palotája, the Palace of Arts.  This new building is a beautiful structure south of the city center of Budapest yet still situated on the Danube. The hall was only built in 2005.  One of my favorite parts about the building is that the lights on the outside change color at night! This photo shows when it was purple.

The music:
The program included Johann Baptist Vanhal's Double Bass Concerto followed by Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5.  This particular symphony is a favorite among horn players because of the Corno Obbligato part and the numerous tutti sections.

The orchestra:
The Vienna Philharmonic is one of the absolute best orchestras in the world. They have a long tradition of style and high quality. There is so much to say about them that I cannot include it all here. Please check out their website.

The horns:
The horn section of the Vienna Philharmonic is unique because they play their own style of horn.  No other orchestra in the world uses this horn. From far away, it may look the same as other horns but it is dramatically different. On horns like mine, the valves are next to the keys which are moved by the left hand. On the Vienna horn, the valves are at the opposite side of the horn. Here is a picture.

The Vienna Horns have made a few recordings which I love. Here is a video so you can see and hear the horns. (Feel free to click on other links that pop up for the Vienna horns. I promise you won't be disappointed!) 

The conductor:
I don't really follow conductors but I still have a few conductors which are my favorites. I will admit that I don't think about conductors when I am listening to a recording, only when I am watching a performance or a video. I first saw Michael Tilson Thomas several years ago when I watched one of his video programs, Keeping Score.  In this series, he goes beyond program notes to break down the music and its history. These videos are very inspiring. Michael Tilson Thomas' style is clear, friendly and sophisticated. I was excited to see him conduct in person.

All of this excitement before the concert added to the emotion of the performance. Dan and I treated this evening as a special date. All dressed up, we went out to eat supper at a nice Indian restaurant near our apartment before the concert. The weather was cold, rainy, and gloomy but we were ready to pop with excitement, especially me.

The Concert:
The first piece, Johann Baptist Vanhal's Double Bass Concerto, was a great opening selection. The soloist was bassist Ödön Rácz, member of the Vienna Philharmonic. The piece was light and charming. My favorite part were the highest notes played by the soloist. The harmonics rang throughout the concert hall. He did a wonderful job!

The showstopper, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5, was the highlight of the evening. I will admit that I cried through the performance and was even shaking at times. Dan can confirm this. This concert was the third time that I've heard Mahler 5 live. I don't know if I've heard any other piece more often. The Vienna Philharmonic was exceptional!

I hope I can put my feelings about the concert in words. It was perfect! (Let me say too, though, that I honestly heard a chip in the horns and even someone's phone went off during the quietest moment-Ugh!) Still, this was the best performance I have seen in my life. Here's why:

The blend:
The horns, and every section, blended so well. (FYI, I am probably going to use the horns for all of my examples). Each chord was full as each horn player played with the same dynamic. No one player sounded more prominent than another. Beyond just the horns, the instrumental groups blended extremely well. The brass instruments all came together in a glorious choir of unity. Speaking of unity...the unisons! I was amazed by the unison tone of the horn section. There are several tutti passages for some or all of the horn section. Their individual sounds melted together to create a majestic and heroic horn beauty. I loved it!

The passing and sharing:
One thing that music ensembles work on is developing the ability to pass notes or melodies. I have never heard a better example than the Vienna Philharmonic. In the horn section, this kind of playing happens frequently for the assistant horn. The assistant helps the first horn by playing taxing sections and passages just before and after a prominent solo. It is not a glamorous job but it requires amazing skill. For example, the horn solo in Mahler 5 includes a lengthy loud passage which ends with a long whole note. As the soloist reaches the end, the assistant sneaks in on the whole note and holds it so the soloist can stop and rest. This requires matching pitch, dynamic and tone. The horns in the Vienna Philharmonic did this well. Another example of passing is when a melody is made by combining notes across several instruments. For example, the horns play 123, the violins play 456 and the flutes play 789. Together, the melody is 123456789. Just as in a single section, this kind of music requires matching pitch, dynamic, and tone. Now, however, it is even more difficult because you must work together with the other instrumentalists to create a complete musical phrase.  I could hear each section of instruments pass the melody between each other as if they were all on the same wavelength, and I'm sure they were. One book that I love, Barry Green's The Mastery of Music, talks about connecting with other performers in a way that our minds and bodies are all communicating. I can't remember the term he used, and I don't have the book here with me in Budapest. However, I could sense that incredible unity across the orchestra. I can't think of any other time that I've seen or heard that connection. It made the music so much more powerful. It was clear that the orchestra was an ensemble, working together to make the music. There weren't any individuals who stood out audibly or visually.

For many collegiate and professional ensembles, the rules are often stated that the men must wear tuxedos and the women must wear something black. I have seen a wide variety of women's styles. Some groups require full sleeves and covered legs and feet. Others do not. For example, I have seen women in sleeveless corset-like tops and others in black ponchos. There is also a wide variety about the definition of black. Women's attire often varies in type of fabric and presence of embellishment. Some women wear sequined sweaters or tops with glitter. Others embellish with jewelry. I am not against the ability to have personal choice for attire. However, the Vienna Philharmonic looked incredibly snazzy and professional. The women were all wearing the same outfit. It was an all black suit of equal quality to the men's matching tuxedos. It took me a long time to find all of the women in the ensemble because everyone matched so well. I really liked how the group was unified visually.

Musicians plays their instruments with varying amounts of movement. There are many times when I'm at a concert and my eyes are drawn to the individual who frequently bobs and sways in their seat. I tend to be very still when I perform in a group setting but I can see the advantage of movement. The key is for everyone to move together. This is what the Vienna Philharmonic did. Just as no one stood out visually because of attire, no one stood out with individual movement. Everyone moved together, the entire time. It was easy to see the unison movement of the strings by watching their bows, but the other sections moved together as well. The leader of all of this movement was Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas. WOW! If anyone deserves to be called Maestro, it would be him. He conducted Mahler 5 for memory. Consider that the symphony is about an hour and 15 minutes! Without the obstacle of the stand on the podium, the Maestro moved freely and expressively in front of the orchestra. This is what I love. His graceful and energetic motions instilled even greater passion into the players. As a conductor, he is not a mere time keeper but a leader who educes passionate artistry and sensational music from each player.

Overall thoughts:
Magnificent, outstanding, superb, fantastic, unparalleled, first-rate, top-notch, amazing and inspiring. All of these words describe the concert. The wide dynamic range, the purity of tone, the emotion, the unified look, the unified playing, and the overall beauty made me feel alive. This is why I love music! I hate to say that my feelings for music may fade at times but this concert more than reignited my set my heart ablaze! I had a wonderful time and I feel so honored and blessed to have had the opportunity to attend this performance. I read the following statement on the Vienna Philharmonic website:

The Message of Music
The Vienna Philharmonic has made it its mission to communicate the humanitarian message of music into the daily lives and consciousness of its listeners. In 2005 the Vienna Philharmonic was named Goodwill Ambassador of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The musicians endeavour to implement the motto with which Ludwig von Beethoven, whose symphonic works served as a catalyst for the creation of the orchestra, prefaced his "Missa Solemnis" - "From the heart, to the heart".

Vienna Philharmonic, you have succeeded in your mission because you definitely touched my heart. Thank you!

Here are a few photos from the evening. Enjoy!

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