A Musical Novice in Vienna

For anyone with a passing interest in classical music, a trip to Vienna is a major challenge. The city abounds with multiple opera houses, concert halls, churches and museums offering opera, operetta, musical concerts, cabaret, theatre and dance. Daily! The choices every night are overwhelming. Friends who know more about music than I recommended that, if I couldn’t get tickets for the world-famous Staatsoper, I should at least take in whatever was on offer at the Volksoper and the Musikverein. First thing Thursday, I hustled down to the box offices looking for tickets.

As a preamble, I should say that my one year of high school German is so old that I understand nothing sung or written in German. Secondly, I have had no formal training in musical appreciation (alas). Despite these handicaps, music and dance are universal and I lucked out with two performances that were totally memorable.

The Volksoper, built in 1898, has a wide repertoire of opera, operetta, ballet and contemporary dance and is considerably cheaper than the more opulent Staatsoper. Even better, it is only three stops away on the streetcar which passes by our hotel. Saturday night, I attended a triple bill ballet program: Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), Maurice Ravel’s Boléro (1928), and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1935/36). The music was familiar, but the choreography was all new, expressly created for the Volksoper. The short pieces were interesting, but it was the Carmina Burana which left me and the full house of over 1300 spectators raving. The ballet troupe of 20 modern dancers and nine principal dancers in leading roles were supplemented by soprano, tenor and baritone soloists at the sides of the stage, the Volksoper orchestra, choir, student choir and children’s choir. Vesna Orlic’s choreography was upbeat and vibrant, by turn poignant and amusing, the dancing avant-garde and edgy, with the Fortuna character danced by the mesmerizing male dancer, Florian Hurler. I had not appreciated that Carmina Burana first premiered as a stage work in 1937 and was only later adapted to the choral repertoire. The use of dance was a revelation which only enhanced the riveting and glorious music.

The Musikverein, which opened in 1870, is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and considered one of the finest concert halls of the world. Its Great Room is an ornate golden hall seating over 1700 with standing room for another 300, lit by shimmering chandeliers and golden gilt. Sunday night, the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir presented the Joseph Haydn oratorio, “The Seasons,” a magnificent three-hour masterpiece for soloists, choir and orchestra, which was thrilling. The orchestra is a large group which plays on period baroque instruments under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who is 85 years old. The music has large parts for three soloists (soprano, tenor and bass) and an equally demanding contribution from the chorus. The interaction between the soloists and chorus, and between different choruses within the choir, is a great treat, as are the horns and various percussion instruments adding to the orchestration. How Harnoncourt maintains his stamina through so demanding and dynamic a performance is amazing. He did, of course, and the audience loved it. So did I. It was a privilege to be in  a house full of Viennese music lovers who clearly appreciate the treasures of their city. Oh, and by the way, the caterers at the Musikverein offer an array of Viennese sweets and savouries to be enjoyed with wine or champagne during the very short interval.


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