Wien, Musikverein, großer Saal. I know this golden hall, probably better than any other concert space in the world. I heard my first concert here forty years ago and over the decades have seen countless rehearsals and performances by many soloists, orchestras, and conductors, including some of the greatest. And I know this audience. Sophisticated, experienced, snobby, and smug. Win them over and their enthusiasm knows no bounds; fail and their polite indifference has the sting of an arctic blast. This was the last hurdle of the YPO’s Mahler tour, its greatest challenge, the highpoint and culmination. For me it was a homecoming.
For this reason, perhaps, I approached this concert with surprising calm. I could appreciate the wide-eyed wonder these young people were experiencing – I, too, had once gawked at so much gilded splendor. I could also sense their physical pleasure in bathing in the warmth of this unparalleled acoustic space. But for once I felt closer to the Viennese audience welcoming strangers into “their hall”.
I had spread the word and invited Viennese friends – musicians and music lovers. Many came, some with reservations. After all there had been two recent performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and now this “Kinderorchester”? It took some persuasion. Probably quite a lot of persuasion, because this Thursday was a holiday and the Viennese love their four-day week-ends. But in the end the hall was packed, and not with tourists and coerced students groups. This was a Viennese audience, the real deal. Now it was up to the YPO to prove itself.
With each performance, in Prague, Jihlava, and Krems, the Mahler had gone extremely well and Ben Zander glowed in the freedom with which he could shape his interpretation. One of his young musicians marveled that as the tour progressed he was no longer getting nervous before each performance of this sometimes treacherously transparent work. Each player, it seemed, was drawing so much support from the orchestra as a whole that contributing to that whole became the sole concern. Such esprit de corps is ringing testimony to this conductor’s leadership skills. Indeed, all the players I spoke with felt that they not only had absorbed their parts but those of the others, as well. Several told me that they were confident they could have performed the entire work from memory. A Mahler symphony by heart! Ah, the cockiness of youth! But I believe them – so much had this work penetrated into the very fiber of their beings.
The concert in the Musikverein began with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which the orchestra and soloist George Li had last performed in Litomysl. Li’s performance was surprisingly impetuous, he took risks and pushed at the edges of this work’s classically balanced structure. It was a daring and provocative reading – and the audience loved it and him. He was called back again and again and when the orchestra stood there was a roar approval. Half the battle.
During intermission there was much talk about the youth of the orchestra. ‘That concert mistress – how old do you think she is? Did you hear the woodwinds? And the sound of the strings!’ One friend, a professional flutist, exclaimed with conviction that this had to be the best youth orchestra in America. Another friend nodded, but grumbled, ‘all well and good, but Mahler? We’ll see.’
The Ninth Symphony is a work that requires nearly an hour and a half of intense concentration with little, if any, opportunity for emotional repose. The outer movements are slow with long, sustained arching lines. There are explosive climaxes in the first; an extremely hushed and drawn-out farewell in the last. The middle movements are quirky and quixotic, a series of sharply etched character studies with frequent shifts in tempo and often dense contrapuntal textures. There are challenges everywhere for the brass and woodwinds, for intonation and intra-sectional ensemble.
Beyond all this there was concern for Ben Zander’s knee, which had given out after the concert in Jihlava. In Krems he used crutches and a stool, standing only in the last movement. In Vienna, however, the crutches and stool were gone, as if to say that nothing was going to interfere with this performance. And nothing did. It was a performance that, from beginning to end, was focused solely on this extraordinary score in this extraordinary hall where Mahler himself had frequently performed and where Bruno Walter had given the premiere of this symphony on June 26, 1912, almost 99 years earlier to the day.
The audience listened with the kind of rapt attention that suggested the novelty of a stage full of teenagers had been pushed into the background. This performance was going to be judged entirely on its own merits and these young musicians held to highest standards. Ben Zander took risks, as well. Those climaxes in the first movement had a grandeur unlike anything we’d heard before; in the middle movements he asked for and received unprecedented clarity and brilliance; and in the last movement, this intensely inward-looking Adagio, he achieved an expansive calm that must have surprised even the players themselves.
And then that exquisite moment of silence. Too much to bear. It was broken, somewhat prematurely, by a single booming “Bravo!” That unleashed a torrent of applause and stamping feet (ah, the wooden floors of the Musikverein!), followed by the sound of clattering seats as the audience rose as one for a standing ovation. It was loud, heartfelt, and sustained, punctuated but not driven by shouts and whistles coming from NEC schoolmates from the touring Youth Symphony, who had come over from Bratislava to hear the concert. What a proud day for this conservatory to be represented by such ambassadors! And what a triumph for Ben Zander, who has molded these gifted young players into an ensemble of astonishing power and depth. This was a performance fully worthy of the hallowed traditions of the Musikverein and these young artists had earned their place among the generations of musicians that had preceded them. They, too, were now at home.
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