Book Review: Orchesterspielen

Musicologist and conductor Matthias Wurz documents tales and portraits from 42 years of the Radio Symphony Ochestra Vienna

TVR Books | Cynthia Peck | April 2011

Vienna's Radio Symphony Orchestra: A Living History

What more perfect team is there than a great orchestra? Perhaps the only thing that compares is the team of a great hospital. Each member an incredible specialist with years of training, practice and experience, with the ability to work to the finest detail as a group, moving together in effortless accord with a common goal. Each member following individual tasks, the whole destroyed if a single part is missing or misplaced.

It’s a grand moving machine whose every piece is flawless, an organism that, in its entirety, creates something vital and living.

The Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna (RSO) celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. A year later, Matthias Wurz, conductor, journalist and musicologist, published Orchesterspielen, Geschichten aus dem Leben des RSO Wien (Orchestra Playing, Stories from the Life of the RSO Vienna). It was written, he said, because the 40th anniversary looked as if it would go by unnoticed. The year 2009 was fraught with anxiety: the orchestra was threatened with being disbanded as a result of the financial crisis, pressure on funding and a "re-organisation" at the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Company). The dissolution was averted in June of 2010, with the orchestra finally becoming an established part of a new Austrian law governing media and broadcasting.

Wurz, along with many, took part in an online petition to plea for the orchestra’s future: With over 30,000 signatures, the petition was ultimately influential in the orchestra’s continued existence. And his active involvement with the orchestra has continued with a year of research on Orchesterspielen, its slim format belying the wealth of details about musical life in Austria contained within.

Reading about an orchestra is certainly not the same as hearing it. But the wonderful aspect of Orchesterspielen is that the book is about the life of the orchestra, about its team of real people. It is not simply a chronological history, with lists of names of conductors and the programs played. Wurz has structured his book around oral history interviews he has conducted with the orchestra’s musicians and other persons intimately involved, from conductors to the technical hands backstage. And his text is augmented with his own fine photos of the orchestra in action.

The interviews are combined with related historical facts, these taking on a life of their own when combined with stories of the musicians’ life with the orchestra. How exciting to find out that the three-tone Ö1 "theme song" was not created by a computer, but was from the hand of the Austrian jazz musician Werner Pirchner, who wrote in 1993, "I am happy that you have time to record the three ORF tones… in all keys, bowings, and means of expression."

How wonderful to know that the Ö1 Bim Bam Bim was recorded by the first woman concert mistress of an Austrian orchestra (since 1976), Annemarie Ortner-Kläring, who knew how to create expression on three notes!

It might seem at first glance that a radio orchestra is an anachronism. And yet in our world of webcasts, it is clear that the broadcasting of live music has not lost its importance. In fact, some in the industry think that it is the business of selling recordings that is dying, that recorded music in the future will be the PR first and last for live concerts. Radio orchestras and live broadcasts of concerts have existed nearly as long as radios. One of the most famous was Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra, whose broadcasts, and later recordings, were the main fodder for several generations of music lovers and students in the U.S.

In Austria, live music has been broadcast since 1926. The RSO was founded in 1969, preceded by a number of ensembles formed expressly for the broadcasting company. One of the orchestra’s main purposes has been the playing and recording of contemporary Austrian music – yes, music is still "Made in Austria." The orchestra recently recorded a double CD with 102 miniature pieces composed by as many Austrian composers.

The orchestra has a second focal point: It has long been a forerunner for playing unknown pieces that need to be returned to the common repertoire, pieces forgotten for reasons known and unknown. One large group of such works are those by the Jewish composers forced to flee or who were murdered by the Nazi regime.

In 2002, the RSO’s then chief conductor, Bertrand de Billy, led the orchestra down yet another new path: "main-stream" repertoire, starting with Mozart’s Così fan tutti. De Billy describes this as having been a "provocation" in tradition-steeped Vienna. But the RSO proved its worth, and today it plays music spanning 370 years, from Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea (1642) to works that were written last month. Nevertheless, its musicians are not "repertoire" players; they see something new every week. It is perhaps an understatement when double base player and orchestra representative Bernhard Siegler says that his work is "never boring." Indeed, "you stay young if you speak the language of your time."

The book does not ignore the important "back-stage" staff, from the administrative office to the stage hands. For an orchestra that plays contemporary music, setting up the stage is a challenging job. Michael Ramsauer-Müller, one of the two RSO stage managers, knows that composers will continue to ask for impossible things: "No matter what, someone will think of it."  Only one example: empty oil cans in front of the trombones to create more resonance. Would it be possible to put on an RSO concert without an expert for the stage?

"Rarely," says Ramsauer-Müller.

A symphony orchestra, with its symbiosis of 100 people, its mix of energetic music making and human emotion, is something remarkable. Orchesterspielen (luckily an English translation is planned) enriches our appreciation of how this comes about, and reminds us of its importance. To borrow a phrase from Wilhelm Sinkovicz, music critic at the Austrian daily Die Presse and long-year producer of the RSO’s "Klassische Verführung" (Classical Seduction) discussion concerts: The orchestra should be praised with a tempo-marking of Gustav Mahler: "Kräftig und entschieden."

Yes, the RSO is "strong and determined."

Matthias Wurz (ed.), Orchesterspielen: Geschichten aus dem Leben des RSO Wien

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