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The Globe and Mail

Vienna Philharmonic astonishes with its ability to work as one

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Roy Thomson Hall
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

You don't really want to psychoanalyze an entire orchestra, even if they are from Vienna, but here goes anyway.

The Vienna Philharmonic notoriously admitted its first female member in 1997 (the orchestra was founded in 1842). Even today, women make up a tiny, tiny minority of the orchestra's players – a mere three female faces dotted the glacial sea of 100 plus white males that performed for us on Wednesday night at Roy Thomson Hall.

The experience of other equally fine world orchestras has taught us that such restrictions are not based on any valuation of musical excellence. As it turns out, musical brilliance is independent of gender, race, age, or any other supposedly limiting factor. Good players come in every shape and size imaginable.

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So, for an orchestra to adhere stubbornly to its traditions in the face of this democratic world of excellence means it has to compensate for this narrowed talent pool – I'm just theorizing here, mind you – in another way. And based on the experience of Wednesday night's quite stunning concert, the Vienna Philharmonic compensates by developing among its players an enormous sense of camaraderie, unity and single- mindedness.

It's a truism that in chamber music, when there are three or four musicians on stage, each player minutely adjusts to the tone, sonority and spirit of the others to make a unified musical whole. The miracle we heard on Wednesday night was for an orchestra of over 100 members to do the same thing. The blending power of this orchestra, their ability to shape their individual sounds to match and complement each other, player by player, section by section, even in an ensemble of this size, was astonishing. It was as though each member of the orchestra could hear every other one simultaneously, and adjust their individual playing accordingly.

And this didn't seem to be a conductor's accomplishment. Perhaps Franz Welser-Most works this orchestra to the bone in rehearsal (I'm sure he does; such playing doesn't arrive spontaneously), but on stage, he is businesslike, quiet, contained. The Vienna Philharmonic seems to be primarily a player's ensemble – it seemed that the musicians themselves were making the sonic adjustments and connections that made the evening so unique. Perhaps this is Welser-Most's most powerful achievement – to make it seem as though the music is making itself.

The Philharmonic chose three pieces to show off its virtuosity on Wednesday night – an early Schubert symphony, Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspeigel's Merry Pranks, and a contemporary work, Lied, by Austrian composer Jorg Widmann. It was perhaps during the Widmann that we heard the most virtuosic of the orchestra's effects, starting with an opening so quiet that I actually wondered where the sounds were coming from, so unlikely was it that this whispered beginning was being made by the dozens of musicians sitting in front of me.

The Widmann, which creates a dream montage of bits of music the Vienna Philharmonic might have played in its history – scraps of Schubert mixed with snatches of Mahler – uses as a technique the blending of orchestral sections, passing sounds from violins to piccolo, cellos to trombones, seamlessly, magically. The orchestra accomplished these musical sleights of hand, and many others, with remarkable skill.

If there was a problem with the Widmann, it was the same problem that bedevilled the orchestra all night – the excellence of its execution actually detracted from the music it was playing. The Philharmonic reminded me of an actor whose technique is so captivating that you stop paying attention to the play he or she is in – the actor's skill trumps the content of the piece.

This was true not just of the contemporary piece on Wednesday's program, but of the Schubert Symphony that preceded it and the Strauss that followed. All was played impeccably, with lively tempi, perfect attacks, powerful commitment. But the overall effect was flat, somehow. Not the boredom that comes with showiness for its own sake, but a precision that eventually wears you out, like a football team that always wins, but never surprises.

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Perhaps the deep internal bonding that is the hallmark of the Vienna orchestra, which allows it to keep to its traditions faithfully, come what may, has created a problem for the group, despite its excellence. Perhaps it reflects itself to itself too perfectly, too completely. Perhaps it needs the shock of difference, of the new – new players, new approaches – to push it to emotional depths it has forgotten it knows how to plumb.

But then, again, perhaps I should leave the psychoanalyzing to the Viennese professionals.

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