Concert Review: The Vienna Philharmonic at Zellerbach Theatre

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Founded in 1842, the Vienna Philharmonic has long been one of the most illustrious and infamous orchestras to date. An ‘old boy’s club’ in almost all senses of the world, the Vienna Philharmonic personifies tradition and convention; it has only recently started to accept female members and acknowledge its controversial past. Indeed, the Vienna Philharmonic has been peppered with scandals ranging from associations with the Third Reich to disfavoring minority players.

Yet, it was a pleasure, and privilege, to hear the Vienna Philharmonic play at the Zellerbach Hall on Friday March 7th. Led by Andris Nelsons, the program for the night featured Joseph Hayden’s Symphony no. 90 in C Major, Hob. 1/90, Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a and Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90.

Here, it is important to note that I am by no means am expert on classical music; in fact, this concert is the first classical concert I have attended in a while. So, it is safe to say that this is strictly amateur hour here, and this review comes from a very layman point of view.

The highlight of the concert was unequivocally Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major. The piece started with vigor and strength that one expects from a world-class orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic. The first movement, Allegro con brio, was particularly beautiful with the different melodies interweaving and interspersing each other like a patchwork quilt. The clarinet soloist was outstanding; the rich and full bodied tone soared high above the crowd, holding court even in the most quiet of sections within the piece. It was amazing to watch the rapport between string players and the conductor as he prodded, coaxed and pushed different parts of the orchestra to bring out its respective melodies.

However, the performance was not without faults, I think. Somewhere in the second movement, Andante, the wind portion of the orchestra seemed to hit a few roadblocks. The flute soloist seemed to struggle with some intonation problems during the tricky and quiet portions of the piece, and the horns seemed off pitch and bleating at times. While this was rare, the conductor’s cutoffs also did not seem clean at times, with some sections lingering on a particular note a fraction too long. Coupled with the ruddy and dry acoustics within Zellerbach hall, I did not experience the richness and 360 degree sound experience I had hoped for.

What confusion the second movement brought about was alleviated by Poco Allegretto and Allegro. The last two movements were played beautifully with energy and elegance. It was a pleasure to hear the rising and falling of the dynamics in the third movement, punctuated by the sound of various wind soloists. The conductor ended the third movement with a stylish twirl of the baton, which was a delight to watch.

The concert ended with a standing ovation, which was surprising and not at the same time. While Berkeley is a hotbed of radicalism, it also gives credit where it’s due. Although the performance was by no means flawless, it was a great once in a lifetime opportunity to watch one of the world’s finest orchestras play traditional and beautiful repertoire.

Image taken from calperfs.berkeley.edu

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