Thursday, May 15, 2014

Vienna Full: The Vienna Philharmonic in Berkeley

by Nicholas Mathew

Over a long weekend, 69 March 2014, the Vienna Philharmonic was resident at Cal Performances—UC Berkeley’s venerable performing arts series—in a larger-scale reprise of their residency back in 2011. This time, Matias Tarnopolsky, the director of Cal Performances, and his dynamic new associate director, Robert Bailis, made sure that the orchestra was even busier, with a high-calorie Sachertorte of events in addition to three concerts in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. There was an ambitious two-day public symposium on Viennese musical culture and the Great War, itself including a further chamber-music recital, then there were the pre-performance talks and a long list of classroom appearances—including individual master classes and an extended public session coaching the string section of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. One consequence of all this collateral activity was that the Vienna Phil showed up with quite an entourage: their president Clemens Hellsberg came, plus a small crowd of Vienna-based scholars and historians. And this in turn meant still more events and functions and parties and what-have-you. For many on campus, the week was replete with all things Vienna Phil.

Members of the Napa Valley Youth Symphony
after an open rehearsal of the Vienna Phil at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
The whole shebang was a huge success—inevitable, on the one hand, given the personnel involved, and that, for many, merely the idea of the Vienna Phil still guarantees an Earth-moving experience. On the other hand, the most important success of the residency wasn’t nearly so easily won. Given the cash, the clout, and the contacts, many presenters can hire the Vienna Philharmonic, after all—audiences will generally show up and swoon, whatever happens. Cal Performances, by contrast, is a university body with an explicit campus-based mission, and so has a more complex (and interesting) set of questions to grapple with. What should an orchestra such as the Vienna Philharmonic be doing on the Berkeley campus anyway? What demands, if any, should a leading American research university make of an august European performing institution in its midst? What should such an extended visit strive to accomplish, besides some lovely concerts? And especially: how should such a residency be organized to ensure that it involves genuine campus-wide involvement? The main risk of any such high-profile event in a big-budget university concert series is obvious: that a world-famous orchestra is merely housed on campus, but is ultimately heard only by a handful of clued-in faculty and emeriti, plus the great and the good of the local community. This would be good PR, but a poor show from the perspective of any educational mission. It seems to me that the importance of the entire Vienna Phil program was that it was formulated in part as an attempt to surmount precisely this challenge.

Cal Performances has been doing programming of this sort for many years, of course. But it has been given new impetus of late by a substantial award from the Mellon Foundation, aimed at expanding its educational mission—part of which focuses on meshing concert programming more closely with courses in the Berkeley curriculum. I have a special interest here, since I have been teaching a class this semester under the auspices of this new program, on Vienna 1900. This has meant, among other things, bringing 50 or so undergraduates, most of whom are not music majors, to around ten major events. For my class, having the Vienna Philharmonic in town was obviously a high point in the semester, and we had as much interaction with the visiting artists as we could have wanted.

The concerts were excellent, of course—if variable in character. On the opening night Lorin Maazel appeared (the surprise super-sub for the sick Daniele Gatti) to a feverish reception, but turned around and waved his baton with the calm satisfaction of a man sliding his key into the ignition of a Rolls Royce. With an irresistible purr, Schubert’s “Unfinished” got going—a touch slow and metronomic for me: plush comfort-modernism, with all the precision engineering you might expect. Mahler’s Fourth was similarly burnished—and far from grotesque in the contortions of its second movement. But the next day, Andris Nelsons (now standing in for Franz Welser-Möst, who became unwell at the last moment) drew something quite different from the same players: Brahms’s Third played with real clatter, verve, and gestural animation. Then, on the Sunday matinee, I found myself enjoying Bruckner’s Sixth (conducted by Nelsons again) perhaps more than anything else I’d heard over the weekend. Certainly, if you were craving a great wodge of Viennese late Romanticism, you’d come to the right place.

The accompanying symposium, coordinated the help of the eminent Berkeley historian Thomas Laqueur, was pitched at an informed general public—the “campus community” in the widest sense.  It was ultimately so popular that its Saturday session had to be relocated from a room in the Berkeley Art Museum to the Music Department’s 600-seat Hertz Hall (it was also streamed live on the Cal Performances website—where it is still archived, incidentally: HERE ; click on tabs for parts 13). Three panel sessions were loosely organized (arranged more or less chronologically around wartime, interwar, and postwar themes) but thus managed to include speakers from an unusual range of Berkeley departments, from Music and German to Law and Journalism. Subjects ranged from ruminations on Robert Musil and Mahler reception to war memorials and repatriation. (The home team was joined by the historian-musicologist Michael Steinberg from Brown University.) The substantial Viennese contingent by and large chose to exposit selections of rarely seen material from their city’s numerous archives (my scholarly interests meant that I was particularly absorbed by Christian Glanz of the University of Music and the Performing Arts, who presented compelling wartime propaganda materials from his continuing research project on opera and politics in liberal-era Vienna).

A recurring joke of the symposium—especially amusing to an audience that, happily, hadn’t spent much time at musicological conferences—was that hearing scholars talk about music is rather a let-down after hearing a world-famous orchestra perform it. And you can hardly disagree that, no matter how interesting or respected they are, a bunch of academics doesn’t exactly have the pizzazz of a Vienna Phil. But, of course, that very contrast neatly symbolizes the challenge that Cal Performances has to meet: even though Berkeley has many superb venues for live music, it will always have even more venues for deep thought—and that’s the main reason that it exists. Must a successful university concert series always relate to its campus environment as the thrill of presence relates to the dead hand of academic knowledge? Or as the realm of the drastic relates to the supposedly incompatible gnostic?

The visit of the Vienna Phil showed that Berkeley has an opportunity to avoid institutionalizing such pernicious dichotomies. The presenters know that a campus concert series cannot become a place in which we are encouraged merely to celebrate the irrational enchantments of performance—and then stop there. This would be a recipe for a concert series that sits atop the campus infrastructure like some wondrous court spectacle—its glorious superfluity an expression of the institution’s power. This would, I suppose, be palatable enough for the audience demographic that Berkeley shares with the symphony and the opera over the bridge in San Francisco, but it would be guaranteed to keep away the students Cal Performances needs to attract in order to succeed in its educational mission.

One part of the problem is this: inside programming booklets and on publicity materials, any rhetoric in praise of hearing great music played brilliantly inevitably shades into the language of advertising and PR. Everything tends to be wonderful and marvelous and fabulous—in advance. This is not a problem in itself, but it doesn’t always sit well with the habits of thought that students come to college to acquire. You don’t have to have read Kant’s canonical answer to the question “what is Enlightenment?” to know that understanding isn’t developed simply by swallowing the authority of “tradition”—that is, by taking someone else’s word for it. Indeed, I registered the strength of my students’ independence of thought many times over this semester—their openness yet great discrimination when coming to grips with new experiences and new material.

It’s true that many undergraduates feel a bit awkward at the grander events—but not because (as is frequently assumed) they “don’t know the rules” or feel intimidated by their relative ignorance of classical music (many students at Berkeley have taken advantage of ample opportunities to spend semesters and years abroad, and have been in Old World concert environments a lot more intimidating than Cal Performances; others are students in the humanities, who are frequently among the most knowledgeable people in the room about aspects of what they are hearing). Rather, our students tend to have an acute nose for anything that strikes them as posturing or self-deception. Some of them tell me that, to them, advance rave reviews smack of uncritical orthodoxy and a lack of spontaneity. And the now automatic standing ovations look like a kind of grade inflation. Many of our students are performers, after all, and know only too well that there’s no such thing as a great live performance unless you admit the possibility that it could have been something other than great: average, poor, interesting but bad, bad but absorbing—and so on, through all the endless, scintillating options. If it’s predictably wonderful before it even begins, there is a sense in which it’s not even a performance at all.

This all has vital implications for how an orchestra as authoritative and inevitably wonderful as the Vienna Philharmonic should be received on the Berkeley campus. Should we well-heeled Northern Californians be condemned to play the role of decadent ancient Romans, with our enormous empire and lavish bathhouses—deferentially welcoming the visiting delegation of Greeks, hoping to drink ever more deeply from the Fount of Culture? Or should we show an equal confidence in our own traditions, as the program put together by Cal Performances implied that we should?

We were all enormously lucky to have the Vienna Philharmonic at such close quarters for so long: they were vastly generous both with their time and with the attention they paid to our students and scholars. Still, I’ve come to the view that, if you want more undergraduates to attend more classical concerts, the worst thing you can do is tell them how lucky they are—as though they were indolently shirking their duty to elevate themselves; as though they were only ones who need to change.  Yes, in most respects, students at Berkeley are lucky to be here. But that’s why the Vienna Philharmonic are lucky too—lucky to be exposed to their new Berkeley constituency: a potentially new audience, and an audience that has taught itself to engage with music in ways that are profound, discriminating— and maybe even surprising and fresh.  In some small way, then, such an audience might help inspire the Vienna Philharmonic to evolve into something else, or to think in incrementally novel ways—might, in other words, instigate the sort of true dialogue that is characteristic of the liveliest arts organizations and their publics.

This dialogue may ultimately be more radical in its effect on a behemoth such as the Vienna Phil than, say, the rumblings of slightly dutiful outrage over the orchestra’s notoriously appalling record on the inclusion of women and ethnic minorities (which had been aired in the local press and in online forums rather more forcefully the last time the orchestra had visited). Clemens Hellsberg’s personal achievement in his years as the most prominent spokesperson for the orchestra has been to grapple publically with its frequently problematic history—even as he has remained a staunch defender of what he perceives to be the Vienna Philharmonic tradition. An institution such as Berkeley can add its voice to this endeavor. And this is what will bring the Vienna Philharmonic back for a third time, I hope: we’re lucky to have each other.

Nicholas Mathew is Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. His work focuses on the relationships between music and politics: the place of music in political institutions, the role of music in the public sphere, and the ways in which music constructs identity and subjectivity. He is the author of Political Beethoven (Cambridge UP, 2013).

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