This or That Coincidence

Half Tones: July / August 2010

On The Town | Walter Guertelschmied | July / August 2010

There’s no such thing as a coincidence! That’s been said all the way from the ancient Greeks until Wittgenstein.

On Thursday, Jun. 17, Bertrand de Billy conducted his last subscription concert at the Musikverein as the music director of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna (RSO), exactly the same day that, at 13:11, the new ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Company) statutes were ratified in Parliament. The new law brings a number of reforms (both of this world and the next), but what is really important is that it guarantees the continued existence of this enormously important orchestra.

For years, Maestro de Billy, flanked by two capable representatives from the orchestra, fought vehemently and loyally for his musicians. For a long time, the top brass at the ORF didn’t notice, but a private initiative and on-line petition begun a year ago jolted the sleepy bosses out of their death throes. More than 31,000 signatures were collected for the RSO, with support from celebrities as well as the media (especially The Vienna Review).

The performance of Arthur Honneger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake was equal to the occasion, and de Billy showed us once again the level to which he has brought the RSO. Johanna Wokalek, Burgtheater great and film star (Pope Joan), was impressive as Joan of Arc, a woman on a mission. Unfortunately, miserable amplification of the narrators threw the acoustics totally out of kilter – unforgivable that such a top-rank performance be wrecked by something so amateurish. The RSO and de Billy will perform the Honneger Oratorio again, this time in the original French, at the Salzburg Festival on Aug. 12.

The young German Cornelius Meister will become the new music director of the RSO in September 2010. In his debut concert at the Konzerthaus, he showed nerves of steel and inexplicable respect for a seemingly crazy pianist, Ivo Pogorelic.

An eternal enfant terrible, Pogorelic asked the impossible of Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor piano concerto and his musical colleagues: he ignored so many musical markings, phrases and dynamics, and overstretched or accelerated tempos so much that it resulted in loud cat calls during the performance, boos and angry thumbs down. With all his fantastic technique, Pogorelic seems to suffer from a number of psychoses. Decades ago he managed to divide the jury at the Chopin competition in Warsaw; later he aggravated Herbert van Karajan so much that Karajan fired him. Another non-coincidence: It was Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor concerto! That’s also a way to maintain your image…

Employees of Italian opera houses have been on strike to protest a savings package that has already been decided upon by the Berlusconi government. Cancelling performances, musicians and artists have gone on to the streets. "Culture in Italy is dead and there isn’t any money for the funeral," read a banner at a demonstration on Jun. 22 in front of the Ministry of Culture in Rome.

The strike was called by the musicians’ union after the government declared that in the future, the state will only be able to provide €240 million per year for the salaries of the 5,700 employees at Italian opera houses, salaries which are currently €340 million. All this has happened within the framework of an austerity package passed earlier, with planned budget cuts of €24 billion. For cultural institutions this means that by 2012, the budget of 2009 will be cut in half.

"A catastrophe is looming. I have never experienced anything like this in my life," commented Norbert Balatsch, the legendary choir director at the Vienna State Opera and the Bayreuth Festival who also worked for many years at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. "Other than at the opera houses, the choir of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia is the only professional choir in Italy. Others have had to give up."

The Ioan Holender farewell spectacles have finally ended, thank God, and hopefully the audience has also survived – although the retiring artistic director of the Vienna State Opera has publically threatened that "I am not finished," the title of his humble second volume of memoirs. In his final season, the crafty old fox tried to explain that Macbeth had to be replaced by an unassuming La Traviata because of casting problems: The ringmaster at the singing circus hadn’t found an appropriate female lead. Anyone who believes that has got to be a saint…. What really happened? Merely that the Macbeth premier last autumn was one of the biggest staging flops Holender ever had. And just "by chance" the Festwochen audience didn’t get to see it…


Translated by Cynthia Peck.

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    the vienna review July / August 2010