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MUSIC REVIEW

A Symbolic Appearance With Vienna Philharmonic

March 07, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

It was a small step for a woman. Anna Lelkes walked but a foot or two on stage Wednesday night, since the harps were placed at the extreme stage right of Segerstrom Hall. But this second of the Vienna Philharmonic's two programs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center was her first appearance after becoming the first woman allowed full membership in the prestigious orchestra.

She was greeted with loud cheers and foot-stomping from some of the audience. And it was clearly the fervent hope of those whose protesting had accomplished the event that Lelkes had just taken a giant leap, breaking down the last major barrier in music for women.

But Lelkes was hardly the hero of Richard Strauss' tone poem "Ein Heldenleben" (A Hero's Life), the second piece on a program that opened with Beethoven's First Piano Concerto. As second harp, she had an extremely minor role in the evening. Thanks to Strauss' banal harp writing, his thick and messy orchestration, an aggressive interpretation by conductor Daniel Barenboim and all the testosterone that the orchestra in full blaze so proudly displays, she was heard very little.

Buried though she was, Lelkes did make a difference. We knew that she was there, and we knew how hard the orchestra had fought over the years to keep her out in the name of preserving its sound. So Wednesday night, with some of the orchestra's favorite composers on the agenda, became a perfect occasion to test that fabled sound and to see just how well it served those composers.

The Beethoven concerto performance, in which Barenboim was the soloist and conducted from keyboard, was another of the orchestra's picture-postcard renditions of old Vienna. A musically rabble-rousing young Beethoven was breaking down convention in this early concerto, but Barenboim and the orchestra delivered a perfectly manicured performance. Barenboim has a rounded and deep tone that suits the orchestra perfectly and a familiarity with the score that puts a listener at ease. Beethoven, of course, knew a different era of instruments that didn't blend, and he was after discomfort.

Barenboim changed gears radically for his high-octane reading of "Heldenleben," attempting to get from the Strauss showpiece as much dynamic power as possible. He screeched and swerved, sped up and slowed down, and the orchestra started to lose some of its confidence in the thicker and faster passages. Ironically, this, too, has nothing to do with the sound that Strauss sought--he was a much more even-handed (and sometimes even casual) conductor on his recordings with the orchestra.

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In fact, the Vienna Philharmonic seems to have locked itself into a sound that has more to do with nostalgia than authentic musical tradition. (Composers have historically always been in favor of continually finding new sounds.) And even the sheer, velvety smoothness, delicious as any Sacher torte, that it brought to "The Emperor Waltz" of Johann Strauss Jr. for Wednesday's encore was mostly Viennese myth-- Strauss' own pop bands couldn't possibly have played with such lordly assurance.

Lelkes is now formally part of all this "tradition," and other women hope to be as well. But it pays to remember that the Vienna Philharmonic still intends to build high walls to keep modern society out. It is threatening its own boycott, that of the Salzburg Festival, because the likes of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Sellars and the radical feminist composer Pauline Oliveros are now invited.

Popular American culture had its own say: the marquee of the movie theater next door advertised "Fools Rush In" and "The Empire Strikes Back."

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