Vienna Philharmonic casts magical spell on Zellerbach Hall

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While some will take a moment of silence to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the Vienna Philharmonic refuses to let the centenary pass unheard.

With a peace concert scheduled to take place in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 28 — precisely 100 years after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination there, and the war serving as a focal point for the Salzburg festival this summer, the Vienna Philharmonic will quite appropriately create the soundtrack to the centenary.

To begin the musical commemoration, Cal Performances presented the Austrian orchestra in their second residency at UC Berkeley, “The Vienna Philharmonic 100 Years After the Outbreak of World War I,”  last weekend at Zellerbach Hall.

After their successful Berkeley debut in 2011, both Cal Performances director Matias Tarnopolsky and the Vienna Philharmonic were eager to repeat the experience. Because it usually takes three to four years to plan an orchestra tour, “we realized that 2014, which would be the next opportunity, would coincide with the centenary of World War I,” Tarnopolsky said. Almost by chance arose what Tarnopolsky described as the “perfect connection of musical, artistic and curatorial ideas.”

The years of planning came to fruition last weekend as musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as Viennese scholars, engaged in a four-part symposium, master classes and three concerts focused on commemorating the centenary of WWI.

To grapple with the horrors of a war characterized by millions of deaths and trench and chemical warfare that left behind a lost generation, the Philharmonic played pieces by Schubert, Mahler, Haydn, Brahms, Mozart and Bruckner.

Although the symphonies performed were not strictly connected to WWI, Tarnopolsky explained that “the music they’re performing is about the great classic romantic and modern traditions of the repertoire that the Vienna Philharmonic has engaged with, that it’s famous for.” So instead of focusing exclusively on pieces composed during the WWI era, the Orchestra chose to focus on “the core Austro-Hungarian-German repertoire of the Vienna Philharmonic,” said Tarnopolsky.

Despite a last-minute change in conductors, Sunday’s concert was the manifestation of classical music perfection. As conductor Andris Nelson danced across the podium, he violently waved his white baton through the air like a wand. The sound produced by the Vienna Philharmonic under Nelson’s animated guidance could only be described as magical. Every note carried just the right weight. Every transition was seamless. The orchestra operated not as a collection of individual musicians but as one unified organ.

Bruckner’s “Sixth Symphony” transported audience members to a tumultuous world, not unlike the world of WWI. With moments of great boldness and subtlety, violent percussion echoed the gunfires of the battlefield while chirping flutes reminded the audience of the hope that fuels soldiers at war.

While the Orchestra’s sound was unparalleled in excellence and certainly served as a reminder of the Vienna Philharmonic’s artistic prominence in the last 100 years, there was an obvious void in the symphonic selection. Why were composers of the WWI era not better represented? When Viennese scholar, Christian Meyer, spoke on “Wartime and Postwar Memories Reconsidered” during Saturday’s symposium, he drew parallels between Schoenberg’s equality of tones and the democracies that emerged in Europe after WWI. Yet a sextet only briefly played Schoenberg in a free Chamber Concert on Saturday. Where were Zemlinsky or Webern? The Austrian composers whose music was most affected by the War were no where to be found.

Despite the lack of representation of composers of the era, the weekend served as a beautiful reminder of the war that started a century ago. Tarnopolsky revealed his hopes for the residency stating, “I hope the audiences come away really transported by the beautiful music making and those who also come to the symposium have a chance to think in different ways or challenge assumptions, think about what has changed the world in the last 100 years.” These hopes were certainly met, along with Tarnopolsky’s desire for the audience to understand “how the great values of music and art can really help mold a better future.”

Contact Sophia Weltman at [email protected].