Playing Host to the World At the Musikverein

Concert Highlights in September

On The Town | Michael Buergermeister | September 2009

The imposing, red-brick and sandstone face of the Vienna Musikverein stands just across the outer Ring from the Karlskirche, a Greek Revival temple to music whose legendary aura fascinates all who see it. Rightly regarded as one of the best concert halls in the world, the Musikverein’s suspended wooden floor resonates like a drum, so that sound springs to life with a vibrancy rarely found anywhere. It is this, as much as the reverence for Vienna’s musical tradition that lures the lmasters to its stage each season.

Designed by the Danish architect Theophil Hansen (1813–1891), it was started in the wake of Austria’s defeat by Prussia in 1866. With its monumental Großer Musikvereinssaal (exactly 48.80 meters long, 19.10 meters wide, 17.75 meters high, with 1,744 seats and 300 standing places) containing marble busts of famous composers and ceiling paintings by August Eisenmenger (Apollo and the nine Muses, surrounded by allegorical figures, caryatids and Ionic columns), it plays host to the world.

It also attracts an audience from all over the world. Instead of having to pay exorbitant prices in Japan for second-rate concerts (few musicians bring their best instruments on account of the dampness) many Japanese music lovers prefer to come here instead. It is also where American families try to bring culture to their children, while the children play Tetris on their mobile phones or giggle behind their parents’ back. And people come from as far afield as Hawaii or Brazil just to get a dose of high culture.

In September and October, offerings include one of music’s greatest living conductors; the 80-year-old Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, who is somewhat frail, but as dynamic as ever.

It has been said of Haitink that he is more concerned with "the value behind the notes and the essence of the composition" than absolute instrumental perfection. When he conducts the virtuosic Chicago Symphony Orchestra of which he is musical director on Sept. 16 and 18, we will surely get both. The concert includes a mix of Joseph Haydn, the Symphony in D Major, "The Clock," Anton Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, Mozart’s "Jupiter" Symphony in C Major and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony Nr. 15 in A Major, op. 141.

On Oct. 4 the extraordinary Roman mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who was discovered by renowned conductors Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim, and never looked back, will perform together with the technically brilliant and highly intelligent, Chinese pianist (born in Shenyang in 1982) Lang Lang, who studies under Barenboim, with works by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Viardot-Garcia, Malibran and Bizet.

Both have one thing in common: they are passionate propagandists of classical music and neither the one nor the other believe that it is necessary to make artistic compromises in the way some of their colleagues regrettably do, in order to convert people to their cause. For this reason they remain perhaps not as internationally famous as the "pop stars" of the classical world but are all the more passionately adored within circles of classical music lovers for it.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who is only a few months younger than Haitink, is an open admirer of Bartoli, whose career he helped launch:

"When you hear her you know immediately it’s Bartoli. It’s like with Fritz Wunderlich. But it’s also about how the voice is used, and that’s a matter of intelligence. There are singers with great voices who lack that. Cecilia has everything."

A week later this grand old man of Austrian music himself comes center stage, as Harnoncourt and his excellent Concentus Musicus perform the Händel Cantata Apollo e Dafne, and the stunningly beautiful and moving Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov, the Vienna Philharmonic under Georges Prêtre, the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna under Pascal Rophé and the Cleveland Orchestra, again under Franz Welser Möst will follow.

All in all, it should be an extremely interesting month and a half of music.

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