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Uncanny Homogeneity

Music review: The Vienna Philharmonic is everything it says it is, playing as if invincible, which is good and bad.


It was a grossly unequal fight Tuesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

The protesters, with simple fiddle and flute, petitioning the Vienna Philharmonic to hire women, were a modest group. And they were kept far enough away from patrons entering Segerstrom Hall for the most prestigious concert engagement in its 10-year history that few would even have noticed them were there not the lights of television cameras.

Then onto the stage came a horde of white males, en masse. The now-famous harpist, Anna Lelkes, recently given full membership to mollify the American feminists, wasn't needed for the first of the orchestra's programs of the music of dead white Austrian men--Mozart's Symphony No. 29 and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. And since the orchestra tunes offstage, lest any offending disunity be projected to the audience, it made clear from the very first notes it played--the American and Austrian national anthems--that it was to be an evening in which prisoners would not be taken.

The orchestra is everything it says it is and everything its enemies fear. It plays as if invincible and like no collection of humans should be expected to play. The strings have a homogeneity that is uncanny. The orchestra does proudly breathe as one. The brass are full of breathtaking color. And such oneness of tone is, indeed, so fragile that it is easy to believe that the orchestra must have just the right players. These are men who think very much alike.


But the big question Tuesday night was what in the world were they thinking? Certainly Daniel Barenboim conducted with supreme confidence and elegance. He understands the way the players phrase. He is comfortable with a big, deep, rich sound and they seemed happy with his direct and unfussy ways. Tradition--tradition as seen as preserving the sound and the way of performing music from generation to generation--was served.

And yet what an unreal concert this proved. Mozart's early symphony was so polished as to seem like the most precious of fine alabaster, not the work of a feisty young man dazzling Vienna with the newness of his inventions.

Bruckner's last symphony, left incomplete and only in first draft, is the work of a composer who was ridiculed while alive, by the orchestra that is now his protector, and is the work of a composer losing faith and, to a degree, his sanity. Here it seemed an unambiguous monument. Great, great thunder in the big moments. A scherzo that pounded like a tremendous army on the move. And the final adagio (Bruckner didn't live to complete the finale) played with a tone that one will not hear anywhere else.

Bruckner scholar Robert Simpson calls this movement the most tortuous music the composer ever wrote, and torturous this very careful and well-thought-out performance was not. Five years ago, just before he died, Leonard Bernstein conducted this same symphony with the same orchestra at Carnegie Hall. (Variety in repertory, as in tone, is not something this orchestra cherishes.) It was a slow and genuinely tortuous performance in which Bernstein seemed to take the listener to the abyss and then push. Barenboim, big though his climax at the end was, seemed there to admire the view.

Bernstein's performance did prove, however, that the Vienna Philharmonic can be driven a lot harder than most conductors care to. It can even lose its fabled tone, and be the more human and affecting for it. And that is a lesson for the women who so want to be part of this awesome machine. The real contribution they could offer it is not more conformity--the men already have enough of that, thank you--but the antidote of diversity.

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