In Vienna’s Musikverein, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra earns high praise

November 5, 2012

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By Alison Langley

VIENNA, Austria — For every human, there is a point in life when an unexpected event changes everything. It can be happy or sad, but it means life will never be the same.

That is the moment Austrian composer Herbert Willi aimed to capture in “Sacrosanto,” a violin concerto premiered Thursday night at the Musikverein by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and soloist Nikolaj Znaider.

It was the second night of a weeklong residence in Vienna, the third stop of the PSO’s three-week tour of Europe. Although the program was all Austrian, the PSO introduced itself with a predominantly American program the first night, Oct. 29. It finishes with — what else — Mahler this weekend, recorded live for a CD release on label Exton in about six months.

“Sacrosanto” premiered on All Saints Day, a holiday in Catholic Austria. It was part of a program that included Willi’s “Abba-Ma” performed for the first time in Austria. Austria’s Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn attended the concert and approved.

“It was fantastic, beautiful,” he said. “It’s an expression of great trust, trust that is needed now.”

The concert ended with Mozart’s Requiem in a mournful interpretation by PSO music director Manfred Honeck, complete with pregnant pauses, bell chimes, Gregorian chants, full choir, dramatic readings and an amazing soprano, Sunhae Im. Able help came from the Wiener Singverein, with the Choralschola der Wiener Hofburgkapelle providing the chants. German actor Michael Heltau added authenticity when he read a letter by Mozart to his father in a Salzburg dialect.

The production overcrowded the tiny stage (chanters were off-stage). Still, the Musikverein’s fantastic acoustics brought out tones and nuances that otherwise might have disappeared, providing a richness not often heard.

The Requiem correctly overshadowed the evening. The audience seemed blown away not only by the drama but also by the energy sustained throughout. The performance was applauded for nearly 15 minutes. Many patrons jumped to their feet at the end. The woman behind me impulsively shouted out, “Wunderbar!”

It was not a tough crowd. Most were already familiar with Mr. Honeck’s work. The 56-year-old conductor began his career here as assistant to Claudio Abbado. His homecoming was heralded in a cover magazine story titled “Lucky Pittsburgh,” which also gave a glowing review of the city. The author was amazed that a city of only 300,000 could support a quality symphony orchestra. She also enthused over its transformation from steel to high-tech.

But it was the curious and the young who had come to hear the latest Willi works. He is known in Europe and Asia. His fan club in South Korea rents an apartment for him in Vienna so that Mr. Willi has a place to stay when he works here.

The Musikverein commissioned “Sacrosanto” as part of the yearlong celebration of the venerable institution’s 200th anniversary. Although Mr. Willi worked on the piece for seven years, the PSO got the notes only about a month ago, shortly before embarking on the tour. It managed to squeeze in a rehearsal in Madrid with Mr. Znaider, who performed with the orchestra in the Spanish capital, before arriving in Vienna.

“Sacrosanto’s” first three movements express our hectic lives. Through its strong percussion line we can hear the machine cogs that push us through our day. Yet the violin reminds the audience that there is humor, joy, love and — sometimes — a bit of impatience and sadness. All the while, the energy is continuous, unrelenting. Mr. Znaider, to whom “Sacrosanto” was dedicated, played the solo part brilliantly, with fine intonation in the extreme high parts.

In an interview after rehearsal Thursday afternoon, Mr. Willi discussed the fourth movement, called “sacrosanto e devoto” or “holy and devotional.”

“We are functioning. There is scarcely any room to breathe. We are going, going, going. And then, suddenly, completely unforeseeable; something unexpected happens which changes everything. Then nothing functions anymore. I call this a holy space.”

Mr. Znaider’s reflection was sensitive and moving. Then, in the fifth movement, life goes on. We continue as before — and yet changed. Mr. Honeck paired the concerto with “Abba-Ma.”

The audience was excited and the reviews were positive. “A brilliant, compact sound: From the opening track, one experienced at Vienna’s Musikverein how disciplined, controlled the Pittsburgh Symphony is able to unfold the energy,” wrote Ljubisa Tosic, music critic for Der Standard, one of Vienna’s pre-eminent papers. However, Mr. Tosic found the Willi portion of the program a bit static.

Maila von Haussen, music editor at a local classical radio station, was unequivocally enthusiastic. “The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert was very impressive,” she said in her broadcast. “For All Saints Day, Manfred Honeck has shown his very own concept of Mozart’s Requiem (mixed with texts from Mozart, Nelly Sachs, the Bible) that went well together with Herbert Willi’s compositions ‘Abba-Ma (Echo for Peace)’ and the commissioned work ‘Sacrosanto.’ ”

“The PSO under Honeck gave a highly appreciated concert,” Ms. von Haussen added.

Earlier, the music critic for Die Presse, Helmar Dumbs, gave a mixed review of the PSO’s first performance, which included Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, Steven Stucky’s “Silent Spring” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.”

He singled out “an exquisite trumpet solo in the middle movement” of the Gershwin. About the “New World,” Mr. Dumbs wrote:

“The horns electrified in the key movement, evoking pure joy, and the strings presented themselves in fine, layered shadowing. Even the changeable mixing of the two groups of instruments provided excitement.

“Too bad, then, that Honeck and his musicians did not provide the same attention to the composition of the melody line. In particular, the woodwinds seemed too even-handed. Perhaps that’s the reason why this time Dvorak’s ‘Ninth’ could not leave the audience with any moving impression.”

Alison Langley is an American freelance journalist in Vienna (
First Published November 5, 2012 12:00 am