CARNEGIE HALL | Vienna Philharmonic

Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 8 PM
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Zubin Mehta

Hugo Wolf | Italian Serenade
Joseph Marx | Lieder: “Hat Dich die Liebe berührt,” “Selige Nacht,” “Zigeuner,” “Barcarole.” Soloist: Angela Maria Blasi, Soprano.
Franz Schubert | Symphony No. 9, “Great”

Encores: Johann Strauss Jr. | “Tritsch-Tratsch” Polka, Op. 214 & “Unter Donner und Blitz,” Op. 324
Joseph Hellmesberger Jr. | “Leichtfüssig”
Eduard Strauss Sr. | “Bahn Frei!”

The Wiener Philharmoniker’s sound is still different from that of any orchestra I’ve heard live. Lucky the New Yorkers who can make the Vienna ensemble’s three-night appearance each year here an annual tradition of their own. The first half of this concert presented two works entirely new to me—Hugo Wolf’s lyrical, lovely Italian Serenade and a set of songs by Joseph Marx, both composers from the Age of Mahler—though selections, I suspect, chosen as a breather for the orchestra as they recovered from the Bruckner Ninth 24 hours ago and prepared for the Schubert Ninth to come after intermission. It was of course the mammoth, marathon Schubert symphony that provided the revelatory vehicle for this orchestra’s flawlessly rich sound. (One might characterize it as “robust creaminess,” but that’d risk evoking the curdled decadence or mere afterthought status of dessert.) It was one densely woven fabric of sound, with no relenting whatsoever in intensity and no bristling over of texture. In the moment, one felt as if this is what an orchestra should be, must be.

[Update: James Oestreich in the NYT reflects a few days later on the Vienna Philharmonic’s choices of encore during this series of Carnegie Hall concerts.]


Carmen was the first opera I knew and loved, before its tunes became too familiar and the eager young self dismissed it as unsophisticated. Last night, in the Zeffirelli production first staged at the Met in 1996, I began to rediscover its musical as well as dramatic intelligence. My memory of Don Jose, formed upon the Migenes-Domingo film version many years ago, before I could read its English subtitles, had been as the hot-blooded paramour Carmen ultimately loved just as much. But Bizet’s opera offers no such certainty: Don Jose seems all but marginal to the tale, in fact, albeit constantly pushing himself back into it, sacrificing everything for the centrality in Carmen’s life he will never have—precisely because he has sacrificed and thereby compromised his role—whereas Escamillo the toreador (superbly sung by Ildar Abdrazakov!) is all role and no compromise. Mistaking a life in shambles for persistence of love, Don Jose can assert his existence only through the decisive act of murder—a childish pointing of the finger, a tantrum that could not go the extra step of sublimation. Carmen does prize freedom above all, not from men but to love, even as audiences might wish to believe she sings against her own heart—that somehow this time it’s different, that we’re wiser to her emotions than she can be. Love is easy, she sings: as soon as you think you’ve lost it, there it is again. This openness—radically vital and for her vitally sustainable—is a serious stance, as haunting as Isolde’s monomaniacal steadfastness, and puts the audience to shame for daring less.

Cigarette girls: fascinating; a whole song praising the pleasures of the cigarette! (Richard Klein of course notes this.) Carmen is part of the underground economy even as she has worked, too, in a legitimate factory….

Irina Mishura as Carmen could have used more sass and sauciness. Her voice was almost too rich to suggest impetuosity. But sets were stunning, switching between civic spaces—the Seville square with its corner café, market, spare yet gorgeous Cezanne-esque backdrop of rooftops—and the mountain clearing and grotto of Carmen and her company—criminal hideout, palatially wild. Lots of pageantry, especially in the final Act, with assorted potentates striding and sometimes horseback-riding across stage.

Yet: one feels that French is a sub-optimal language for opera.

Untimely meditations

We know something about Wittgenstein’s architectural designs, and about Schoenberg’s paintings. Perhaps there’s a book to be written on philosophers who composed music: Rousseau, Nietzsche, Adorno.

More on Nietzsche: in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, Terry Castle’s brief omnibus review of “astonishing memoirs by (and about) deeply repellent people” recommends Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche. Its author, Ben McIntyre, “took a boat trip into the Paraguayan jungle in 1991 in search of the surviving inhabitants of Nueva Germania — an abortive ‘Aryan’ colony founded in the late nineteenth century by the ghastly Elisabeth Nietzsche, racist sister of the philosopher. He found a weird village of unreconstructed white supremacists — inbred, half mad, many of them still speaking a kind of zombie German — and heard some curious and frightening stories Josef Mengele. A true-life Heart of Darkness.” As Friedrich’s posthumous PR, the book argues, Elisabeth retrofitted his ideas for an unambiguously anti-semitic agenda and secured for him a place in the Nazi canon Nietzsche himself (in his later years, at least) would have denounced. For no good reason, imagining this village in the jungle brings to mind Fitzcarraldo; if anyone were to make a film about all this, Herzog should.

Hot fusion

A couple of months ago, This American Life on NPR featured the extraordinary profile of Chaim, a young Hasidic Jew who redubbed himself “Curly Oxide” and became something of a Williamsburg punk-rock star before marrying and returning to the life of Hasidim. Along similar lines, sans reversion, an emerging Hasidic reggae star of dubious talent but well-pitched niche named Matisyahu has hit the scene, performing at Joe’s Pub last week and scoring an interview on WNYC. Still more press has been accorded to 50 Shekel and his Jew-Unit, named one of the “Nine Most Remarkable Things in Culture This Month” by the December 2003 issue of Esquire Magazine. I must say that “In Da Shul” — his rewriting of the 50 Cent song — is pretty darn endearing; read the lyrics here.

Among ethnically inflected renditions of “In Da Club,” my personal favorite remains Tigerstyle‘s bhangra mix — a mainstay on BBC One’s Bobby Friction & Nihal and Punjabi Hit Squad’s Desi Beats shows. Speaking of bhangra (as I always seem to be), this recent Washington Post article takes a fresh approach, emphasizing the dance-form and actually encouraging readers to attend bhangra classes and club-nights, much as one would go salsa-dancing. Balle balle!

As Bollywood buzzes about the possibility of Hrithik Roshan starring in a remake of Superman (Dharmendra starred in the Hindi para-original), Gotham Comics and Marvel team up to bring us Spider-Man India. In addition to Spider-ji, of course, the world is also big enough for Spider-san, a (theoretical) Spider-jew, and a (newly imagined) Soviet Superman. For those curious about further case studies in the globalization of the comic-book, this site inventorying major superheroes around the world is a good place to start.

In more crossover news, The Pet Shop Boys have composed a new score for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which the Dresdner Sinfoniker will be performing at Trafalgar Square September 12. Neil Tennant writes about the project in The Guardian. Letters to the editor clarifying the history of the film’s scorings are also worth a read.