Vienna always proves to be an exciting experience when the Pittsburgh Symphony comes to play in the city with arguably no greater variety of arts venues. Strictly speaking in music history terms, these streets, apartments, churches and concert halls harbored such giants as Hadyn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Bruckner and the ever-popular Strausses during the 18th and 19th centuries as well as Berg, Schoenberg and Mahler in the 20th century. To put this in pop music terms; imagine a single city wherein Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, U2, Nirvana and Michael Jackson all lived, listened to each other’s live performances, socialized and collaborated – that BEGINS to illustrate the importance of Vienna in the world of western music.
Orchestras, conductors, soloists and chamber ensembles of all sizes, colors and nationalities come here to make their mark, prove their salt or in some cases maintain their status as a world-class entity. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is no exception to this rule.
This orchestra has been appearing in Vienna for decades, but was led by Manfred Honeck for the first time in 2010 at the most sought-after concert hall in the world, the prestigious Musikverein. With nothing but praise for the performances, the PSO has returned twice since then – each time with equally impressive results. We have two performances while we are here and both have excellent musical menus from which to choose. I feel especially fortunate to have been on stage with my colleagues during last night’s performance that featured Richard Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben (“A hero’s life”).
This composition is by far Strauss’s most autobiographical (he was known to be self-admiring) and in my opinion, his most enjoyable to hear. It paints a story of the protagonist that is dynamic and energetic in the first movement. You feel as if you can take on the world when you hear this music.
In the second movement Strauss doesn’t go out of his way to mask his feelings about his critics and those that would seek to bring him professional or emotional harm. The woodwinds played sneeringly sour solos that are meant to paint a caricature-like picture of Strauss’s detractors. This section begins with an odd, snarky flute passage played by principle flute Lorna McGhee.
“In the opening chords of the piece I sometimes think of the first time I played Heldenleben in the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.” Lorna adds, “ My sister Anne McGhee was also in the violin section as well.” I think most musicians still remember the first time a particular work made its mark, and playing that piece transports us back to the feelings and memories that performance brought to us. I asked if there were any particularly difficult passages in the Strauss that she put into extra sharp mental focus. “The very last chord is actually pretty tricky. I play the highest b-flat and it’s built from the brass all the way through the winds to the flute. It’s a tricky spot to get the intonation absolutely perfect. I have to focus on the pitch center several measures before it comes along. Everyone is exhausted from this tour du force and the very end must be triumphal and then fade away perfectly.” Reflecting on the particular character of the Pittsburgh Symphony at these last few seconds of the work Lorna says, “What this orchestra brings is something vital, an amazing heart and spirit – even when people are cold and tired. I don’t know how would put that into writing.”
In full disclosure, I am a member of the percussion section. In this particular composition I play (relatively speaking) very little – more on that later. What this grants me is a fantastic opportunity to truly enjoy my colleague’s playing. Nowhere else was this more enjoyable in the movement that depicts Strauss’s love interest, his wife Pauline.
Strauss perfectly represents her with a girlish, giggly first violin solo that, while wickedly difficult (and played with aplomb by concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley) captures the flirtatious characteristics of a budding romance by two young lovers. A beautiful musical conversation takes place as Strauss vividly paints a blossoming romance that is turning more and passionate between the two of them. It is during this sublime passage that I get to not only listen, but watch the faces of some of the greatest musicians in the world as they communicate through eye contact, facial cues, and very clearly enjoy making this music come to life.
I’ve been in this orchestra for five years now and moments like this are what fill me with awe and joy. I have the best seat in the house, ON STAGE, and I feel as if I’m in a recital where we are all good friends making music because we are passionate about doing so, and doing it at the highest level possible. Let me tell you, this orchestra can PLAY. They, we, put our hearts and souls into it, our passion – and this is an excellent example of how a performance can touch and inspire people.
This movement’s music becomes less flirtatious and more of a commitment between two people who share the same virtues, goals and commitments to one another. In short they are falling in love, and by the texture and color of this ever more dense orchestration, the listener knows it is a love and a marriage that will be honored for many years, long after they are gone. And what better music to play with such passion than a work about love, passion and commitment?
We percussionists, along with the brass section drive a very powerful, yet compact movement that features a battle scene wherein Strauss and his foes go toe to toe. The trumpets lead the attack and are flanked by the tanks and air support of the low brass. This movement is as exciting as it can get, and Strauss emerges triumphal from the battle.
The last two movements focus on Strauss’s works of peace and his eventual retirement to solitude with his wife. He quotes himself (yeah, in case you haven’t figured it out he was a tad narcissistic) with themes from previous works like Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote and a few others for good measure. As the musical story of our hero draws to a close the orchestration intimates he has lived a life of virtue and honor of which he is truly proud. The colors and shades of this music become perfectly sublime and I always feel as if I’m watching a sunset from a mountain cottage at the end of a perfect day. Again, I get the honor of sharing the stage with musicians that make this inspirational music truly come to life.
Most of the PSO musicians enjoy touring, especially in Europe. The concert halls are beautiful and the audiences are exceptionally engaged with the performances. There is usually not very much time to have minor culture excursions between rehearsals, concerts, travel and personal practice time. That said, if you want to explore you’ve got to wake up early and have a sense of adventure. I made sure to book my own travel this tour and left a day before the rest of the group. I landed in Vienna and immediately took a train to Bratislava, Slovakia. This ancient little town is roughly 50 miles from Vienna and has a tremendous amount of charm without so much of the harried busyness of Vienna. I made sure to check out the house where Franz Liszt stayed during his many visits.
This morning I had an early breakfast at the hotel and made my way to the Spanischen Hofreitschule or “Spanish High Riding School” at the Michaelerplatz. This is the home of the world-renowned Viennese Lipizzaner horses. If you aren’t familiar with these I highly recommend doing a quick YouTube search for them. Even if you aren’t interested in equestrianism you’ll find it impressive. These horses not only trot around in formations, but literally skip, leap in place, stand on their hind legs in a controlled stance and many other feats of training. I’m still working on getting my dog to “roll over,” so the results these riders get from their horses is spectacular. On weekday mornings, you can get into the court and watch the training and rehearsals for their afternoon and evening performances. Our orchestra schedule usually doesn’t allow us the time to see the actual performances later in the day, but I enjoy seeing the trainers and riders work with the individual horses anyway in a less formal setting. I was snapping off a few dozen pictures before an announcement was made for all the shutterbugs to stop clicking away. Luckily I was able to snatch a couple of good shots of the horses, riders and the hall.
After that I grabbed a quick lunch, and we were all on our way back to Grafenegg for a rehearsal and another stunning concert featuring the festival’s composer in residence Brett Dean and his new work “Komarov’s Fall.” Yuja Wang made the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 look easy while being fashionably stylish as usual. And the main course was Shostakovich’s Symphony #5 which the audience was treated to before two encores, Bizet’s Intermezzo from the opera Carmen and Katchaturian’s Galop from the Masquerade Suite.
It’s on to Berlin tomorrow. Don’t forget to catch us on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall as we stream Ein Heldenleben live on Saturday, Aug. 31! (http://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/live)