One Jörg Widmann Sandwich, Bitte

Today I heard the Vienna Philharmonic perform in the Musikverein. Christian Thielemann conducted and Dieter Flury played Jörg Widmann’s flute concerto.


The program began with Brahms’s Akademische Festouvertüre. I thought it was a quick, breezy start to an afternoon of music-making. Tipping their metaphorical mugs, the orchestra played with hearty gusto at the final drinking song.


Next up, Widmann’s Flûte en suite, a set of dance movements for solo flute. A quick google search reveals that this piece — unlike many modern works — has been performed a good deal since its 2011 premiere.


I think Widmann does a great job of exploring the orchestra’s different sound worlds. His use of multiphonics was not contrived, rather a cohesive part of the whole.


At the same time, I question Widmann’s orchestration decisions. Two movements are scored essentially for flute quartet alone. Most of the other dances have a predominantly sparse texture. It sounds to me like this piece would be better suited for an ensemble smaller than a full orchestra.


The program concluded with a spectacular rendition of Brahms’s 4th Symphony.  The orchestra played with a sweet, lyrical tone quality throughout. They never overplayed, which allowed them to display incredible dynamic range.


During the first movement, I could distinctly picture a river rushing alongside a mountain village. The musicians’ fine attention to detail allowed them to create these images. 


Vocality took center stage at the chorale of the second movement. A smile rapidly spread across my face at this goosebump-inducing magic.


My one reservation is that their contained, unforced style sometimes came across as too soft, but that more likely had to do with my location (Stehplatz for €5 all the way in the back. Thank God I’m 6’1”.)


During this afternoon’s performance, I often felt that I was attending an orchestral church. Audience members (mostly) listened with rapt attention. After Flury’s solo, they wholeheartedly applauded, pulling him back onstage thrice. In contrast, Leonidas Kavakos’s virtuosic performance of Lera Auerbach’s Violin Concerto No. 4 at the NY Philharmonic in February was met with lackluster, deadened enthusiasm.


Music is ingrained in this city. From the Litfaßsäulen’s advertisements to the concert halls and music archives, it breathes in everything you see. As such, it demands respect. Here, if you say that you study music, you aren’t met with a skeptical glance or an alarmed response. I only have been here a few days, but I truly like what I have seen so far.


* IMPORTANT NOTE: the Vienna Philharmonic is still a boy’s club. I did not see any women in the winds or brass. Most female string players were hidden in the back of their sections. Since it’s been 20 years — it’s crazy that they only started admitting women in 1997!! — since the first full-time female member, I question why there have not been more visible strides. The principal flutist, Dieter Flury — today’s soloist — probably has something to do with this.


In 1996, Flury said that he “would have an uneasy feeling if a woman was to audition for the orchestra. He continued, saying that the philharmonic “would be gambling with the[ir] emotional unity.” Even though the organization changed its official policy in 1997, I would not be surprised if Flury still holds this viewpoint. It’s no wonder that the winds and brass still have few female musicians.