With free time limited by travel, rehearsals, and concerts, as soon as the bus doors open the musicians hightail it to restaurants, museums, historic sites, and shopping. (Though someone please tell me what shoes can you get in Vienna that you can’t get in Boston.)
We’re fortunate that in a city like Vienna, one of those historic sites is also our workplace. The Musikverein is one of a handful of the world’s great concert halls, the others being in the Philharmonie in Berlin and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam—both of which are also on our present tour—and Symphony Hall in Boston. I’m told the new Disney Hall in LA is right up there, but I’ve never played there so I can’t say one way or the other. And of course there’s Carnegie Hall in New York, which might still bask in its former glory, but as a result of its disastrous renovation in 1986, which restored its sheen but damaged its acoustics, it has definitely seen its status suffer.
Backstage at the Musikverein is a warren of cubbyhole rooms and endless stairways that always seem to end up at the wrong floor. Wardrobe trunks? No, those are downstairs. Instrument trunks? Those are upstairs. Where the hell’s the stage? Upstairs again. I’m exhausted. Take the elevator. What elevator? Over there. Oh. It looks like a freight elevator. It’s that, too. The sign says, “The button light doesn’t go on, but the elevator is working.” I’ll keep that in mind for tomorrow night.
And the stage is cramped, even without the chorus that sings in the monumental Mahler 3rd that we’re performing. The risers are narrow, and the ancient music stands threaten to topple over. One almost does. It’s hard to find a way to see your music and the conductor at the same time without twisting your back in a manner suitable only for contortionist. One level of audience seating is at the same level as the stage, so when you walk onstage, members of the audience are right next to you.
Yet, what a great concert hall! Artistically, it spectacular. To know that giants like Brahms and Mahler conducted on the same stage on which we’re performing is inspiration enough, but it’s really the acoustics that make it a pleasure to play in. Somehow, each instrument sounds the way it is supposed to sound—however vague that description is—yet everyone blends together. You can play extremely softly without fear the sound won’t project, and you can also play very loudly without worrying you’ll damage anyone’s eardrums. We’ll be able to test that hypothesis tomorrow, when we perform Shostakovich 4th.
Who’s the most popular, successful composer in the history of Vienna? Not necessarily the greatest, mind you, which, because of everyone’s personal taste is impossible to determine, but the most popular, which is easier to pin down. Not Mozart. Not Beethoven. Not Schubert. Not even Brahms or Mahler. Shoenberg? Just joking. The most popular composer in Viennese history, hands down, is Johann Strauss, Jr. Yes, his music isn’t profound. It’s not complicated. But his compositional skills are first rate as an orchestrator and melodist, and he had an unerring understanding of what audiences loved. I consider Strauss a great composer.
Don’t take my word for it. Guess whose music was commissioned to be premiered at the ball which opened the Musikverein in 1870? Brahms and Strauss became good friends in their later years, and when Strauss’s wife asked Brahms to sign her autograph fan, he wrote down the first bars of The Blue Danube, adding “Leider nicht von Johannes Brahms” (“Unfortunately, not by Johannes Brahms“). So why, may I ask, do we never perform Strauss at a symphony concert? Have we really become so jaded as performers and audiences that the “Emperor Waltz” or “Roses from the South” or “Die Fledermaus” is beneath us?
Let’s take a poll. Ayes or nays for Johann Strauss?
If you want more weird theories about orchestras on tour: SYMPHONIES & SCORPIONS