2009 Salzburg Festival: The Symphonies

KUHF CEO and General Manager John Proffitt will host a 60th anniversary tour to Austria next summer, which will include four days at the Salzburg Festival.  Dean Dalton visited the Festival this summer to make plans and saw five performances in a span of four days. Today, Dean provides commentary on two of the symphonies he attended.

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev conducting
Debussy: La Mer
Shostakovich: Symphony No.8 in C minor, op.65

Vienna Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel conducting
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, op.35 (Nikolaj Znaider, violin)
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps

One of the most exciting aspects of a major music festival is the possibility it offers to attend a variety of events in close proximity for comparison and contrast.  During the four days I was in Salzburg in August there were six performances of five different operas, three symphonic concerts, two of them by renowned ensembles and important conductors, plus several recitals and chamber music programs.  Even in New York or London one cannot find such a smorgasbord of music.  Obviously, one cannot do it all!  But if one chooses well, or just keeps busy for that matter, all sorts of connections present themselves.

Valery GergievIn my case, concerts by the London Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic fell on successive evenings, offering not only the chance to compare the two world-class orchestras but also to observe two big-name conductors, one well established the other rapidly rising, and to hear in close proximity four major orchestral works with all of the opportunities that provides to see even well-known repertoire from new perspectives.

Let's start by considering the orchestras.  Both have long and distinguished histories: the LSO is more than a century old and the VPO has been operating for well over a century and a half.  Yet, in the hearing (and seeing) the London band seems much younger, both as an ensemble and in terms of its personnel than the Philharmonic.  Many of the London players look like recent conservatory graduates—not that that is a bad thing!  It is arguable that the very finest orchestral musicians at work today are the newest additions to the roster.  And I don't know whether the LSO is traditionally a young ensemble, suggesting that young musicians move through it to other ensembles, or if Valery Gergiev, as principal conductor, has been doing some "house-cleaning."  But it is definitely a "young ensemble" meaning that one is more aware of individuals than the whole; in both Debussy's La Mer and Shostakovich's cataclysmic 8th Symphony one could sense the degree to which the members of the orchestra depended upon Gergiev to pull them through and pull them together.

The Vienna Philharmonic, on the other hand, is much "greyer."  The musicians themselves are by-and-large older, but more important is that they seem to have been playing together for so long that one is hardly even aware of them as "individuals."   The result: an ensemble that has a character of its own, whose individual members have become subsumed in the whole, an orchestra that frankly doesn't depend upon the conductor to define its identity or even to bestow an interpretation upon it.  Certainly the Vienna Philharmonic gave Gustavo Dudamel all he asked for in the Stravinsky Rite of Spring, but they probably could have played it quite well without a conductor had it come to that! For them, this was another job to be done and when all was said and done, they did it expertly; no one, least of all the musicians themselves, would have expected anything else.  On the other hand, I came away from the London Symphony's performance feeling that Gergiev had challenged the young musicians and then provided for them the leadership that they needed to meet that challenge: at the end of the concert the expression on the musicians' faces was one of triumph ... and relief! In a way, Gergiev was creating the orchestra itself as well as the interpretation while Dudamel only had to deal with the interpretation (and would have made enemies had he tried to reshape the orchestra to suit himself!).  Does that make one concert better that the other?  No, each was satisfying and exciting on its own terms, but hearing the two side-by-side heightened this listener's awareness of what made each orchestra, conductor, and performance unique.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic OrchestraAnd, in a different sort of way, it was equally enlightening to hear the four pieces that made up the two concerts in close proximity as well, as we were invited (almost compelled) to see relationships across the two evenings' programs.  Perhaps Debussy's La Mer, which opened the London Symphony's concert, would have made a better companion than the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which closed the Vienna program: after all Stravinsky arguably owes more to Debussy than to Tchaikovsky.  But how could one ever put that lovely, lyrical concerto next to the harrowing 8th Symphony by Shostakovich?  But for that matter, what can stand successfully beside the sprawling, brutal, sorrowful piece that Shostakovich once referred to as a requiem for himself?  La Mer, lacking any human reference, was perhaps an inspired choice. 

The sort of compression of so much music into such a short period of time that just these two concerts exemplify, is precisely what makes the festival experience so rich.  And there is no festival so rich, in all senses of that term, as the Salzburg Festival!

KUHF CEO and General Manager John Proffitt will host a music festivals tour to Austria celebrating the station's 60th anniversary next summer. It will include several days each at the Salzburg Festival, the Bruckner Festival in Linz, and in Vienna.  Watch for details in November.
Bio photo of Dean Dalton

Dean Dalton

Host, Houston Symphony Broadcasts

Dean Dalton grew up in a musical family in a smallish town in Missouri. Having sung in church and school choirs from early on, he began to study piano at 8, and took up the viola at 11...