Justin Davidson: How Can the Vienna Philharmonic Change Without Changing?

Richard Strauss's Salome.Photo: Chris Lee

Symphony orchestras dwell in the past—that’s where most of the music is—but few have such a tormented history, or live it with such troubled passion, as the Vienna Philharmonic. The hyperprestigious ensemble has fetishized some periods and forgotten others; erased composers, then reclaimed them; perpetuated traditions but ignored their distasteful roots. Last spring, the orchestra subjected itself to a set of scouring revelations portraying the Vienna Philharmonic of the 1930s as the high-culture wing of Goebbels’s propaganda machine. Now that the orchestra is anchoring a Carnegie Hall festival, “Vienna: City of Dreams,” it’s come bearing a black-bound volume of documents and essays titled Confronting the Past. An organization that once armored itself in silence is finally experimenting with candor. “We can’t say that we were the ones who premiered Bruckner’s Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Eighth Symphonies or Brahms’s Second and Third or Mahler’s Ninth, and at the same time maintain that during the Nazi era it was ‘those other guys,’ ” violinist and orchestra chairman Clemens Hellsberg recently said at a panel on Vienna’s history.*

The Philharmonic is less comfortable confronting the present. It remains a nearly all-male, all-white club with an ossified repertoire. Viennese insist that theirs is an open, diverse, and liberal society, but their cultural envoy to the world is a living reliquary of long-ago revolutions. The orchestra lingers on those periods when the city was at the vanguard of musical culture, issuing a constant rat-tat-tat of shocks. At the start of its Carnegie Hall run, the orchestra reverted to its regular job as pit band for the Vienna State Opera, performing Richard Strauss’s Salome and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, works that once torched conventions and rattled the meek. Salome’s mixture of the biblical and the erotic was too much for Vienna’s squeamish censors in 1906, and Gustav Mahler’s eagerness to conduct the work at the Vienna State Opera eventually contributed to his resignation. The company mounted its belated triumphant production of Wozzeck in 1930; three years later, the company struck it from the repertoire, as did every house in Germany, leaving the composer suddenly impoverished. It’s always more comfortable to love yesterday’s radicalism than to cultivate new ones, and these scores have become touchstones of Vienna’s musical identity.

The Philharmonic made that kinship audible at Carnegie Hall. The singers, banished to a pair of wooden lofts flanking the stage, hallooed to each other across the ocean of strings, and the voices often merged with the tide of sound. The title character in Salome is a precociously seductive teenager who inveigles her stepfather into a horrific act, but it’s the orchestra that fleshes out the every-second-another-drama urgency of adolescence. The score spits, whirls, coos, screams, and writhes, and the Philharmonic—led by 35-year-old whiz kid and Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons—didn’t let so much as a splinter zing by unnoticed.

This is what this group does best: marshal wild passions into stampedes of sound that overwhelm by dint of vividness and detail. The sensuous clarinet glissando of the opening; the quickening heckelphone-and-English-horn flourish at the beginning of Scene Four; the horrified, screeching chord just before Herod’s final command: “Kill that woman!”—these minutiae, so easy to drown in the general flood of orchestral sound, are what bring a manuscript into three dimensions. The performance also reminded us that, thanks to Johann Strauss, father and son, the Vienna Philharmonic is an exquisite dance band. Nelsons gave the score a physical, dervishlike momentum, mixing erotic abandon mixed with acrobatic precision.

While baritone Matthias Goerne made the title character in Wozzeck a rough-hewn introvert, barking lyrically as his personality disintegrates, the orchestra depicted a society splintering into shards. Each cringing sigh, every brutal burst and chattering cruelty gleamed, as if there were nothing more splendid than the end of civilization. Berg did not seem to grasp how quickly the amoral world of his opera was leaching into reality, but the conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, made the most of hindsight. There’s irony, though, in such a refined performance of this serrated score: When Wozzeck ceases to be unsettling, we’re not really hearing it at all.

Performances like these only restate in musical terms the pair of questions dogging this festival: How did the Vienna Philharmonic, a self-governing, democratically organized club inspired by humanists like Mozart and Beethoven, become the cultural organ of a murderous regime? And how can that club cleanse its moral taint while clinging to compromised traditions—how can it change without changing? The answer to both is: by living with paradox.

At the panel, Clemens Hellsberg identified two pernicious elements of the Vienna Philharmonic’s birthright: a craving of semiofficial status, regardless of how authoritarian the regime it’s cozying up to; and its reverence for German music above all other kinds. What he did not address was the insane contradiction of a corps of artists who agreed on the quality of sound and virtually nothing else. Any orchestra is a collection of individuals of contrasting temperaments, incompatible psychologies, and varied life stories who nevertheless breathe, move, and even feel in sync. A string section’s unity in action exceeds even that of a military platoon, and this orchestra pushes unanimity of purpose to a rarefied level. The string players, most of them trained in the city by a handful of teachers, all produce the same distinctively translucent sound. Yet in the 1930s, nearly half the musicians were Nazis—many so zealous that they had joined before 1938, when the party was illegal in Austria. Thirteen Jewish members were summarily expelled. Later, five were killed.

Those internal conflicts mirror the split that many people had to tolerate within themselves. Chauvinism was the currency of Viennese culture even in its most cosmopolitan days, and it seduced people who should have known better. The Carnegie festival opened with Arnold Schoenberg’s early “Friede auf Erden,” a gauzily deluded choral hymn to world peace that the composer later disavowed. But on his way from naïveté to bitterness, he passed through appalling xenophobia. “Now my eyes have been opened about so many of my previous feelings, which I have had against foreigners,” Schoenberg wrote to Alma Mahler a few weeks after the outbreak of World War I: “I never could accept any foreign music, which I always found to be stale, flat, disgustingly sweet, dishonest and incapable … That music has been a declaration of war to Germany. But now comes the payoff. Now we shall throw these mediocre kitschists in slavery and they shall worship to the German genius and adore the German god.”

Nine years later—still a decade before Hitler—Schoenberg rejected his own jingoism, writing to Kandinsky: “For I have at last learnt the lesson … that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but that I am a Jew.”

Austria has changed, of course, and its musical establishment, too, is slinking reluctantly into the present. The gifted Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas recently became a New Yorker, with an appointment at Columbia University. The Philharmonic arrived at Carnegie Hall with a fresh tidbit of shiny modernist clangor by Johannes Maria Staud. And back in Vienna last fall, the young conductor Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a new work by the venerable German composer Aribert Reimann. It was a short curtain-raiser for … Beethoven’s Ninth.

*This article has been corrected to show that Clemens Hellsberg is a violinist, not a violist.

Justin Davidson: How Can the Vienna Philharmonic […]