Since its founding in 1842, the Vienna Philharmonic has separated itself from the world's great orchestras by its singular sound.
"Our situation is unique," says Dr. Clemens Hellsberg, violinist and current chairman of the orchestra, which plays Carnegie Hall March 7 to 9 under Nikolaus Harnoncourt's baton. "We have relationships between teacher and pupil going back to 1819, when Beethoven was alive. In the 1820s and '30s, there was one famous violin teacher in Vienna, and then his son. Both were concertmasters of our orchestra. They educated several generations of violin and viola players, so for a long time, many of the sections‹especially the strings‹have been descended from the same teacher."
But the famous warmth of the orchestra's music making is not all that explains the Philharmonic's autonomy, according to Hellsberg. "We have no chief conductor, we only have guest conductors," he says. "But 'guest' is not the right word, because the relationships are close friendships in a lot of cases. A better term is 'family.'
"With some conductors, it's 'love at first sight,' and with others, the relationship develops over time. But all the conductors we collaborate with have a closer relationship with us than with other orchestras."
The orchestra's 20-year relationship with Harnoncourt wasn't "love at first sight," Hellsberg admits. "That relationship had to grow over the years because he is an artist who provokes discussion, not only by the musicians but by the audience. He does things his own way. And he knows not everybody agrees, so it took time until a majority of the orchestra was convinced. Now, it's a wonderful relationship: He not only has his own ideas but he knows the history of the works.... You learn not only about music from him, but about culture and history."
For these concerts, the programs are purposely provincial. "It's the first time since 1989, when we were here with Herbert von Karajan, that we've come with an Austrian conductor," Hellsberg notes. "We wanted to play an all-Austrian program. And we wanted to play music we've already played with Harnoncourt in Vienna." The first concert pairs Berg's Violin Concerto (soloist, Gidon Kremer) and Bruckner's Symphony No. 4; the second, waltzes by Johann and Josef Strauss with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony; and the third pairs Schubert's Fourth Symphony with Dvorák's Ninth.
But isn't Dvorák Czech? Hellsberg explains otherwise. "Dvorák lived in Austria, was a member of Parliament, and often attended Vienna Philharmonic concerts," he says, adding with a smile, "There's an old saying that every Viennese has at least one Czech grandmother."
Among each season's highlights for the orchestra's members are their annual Carnegie Hall visits. "When you enter a concert hall, you know how an audience feels, whether they welcome you or not, and in New York," Hellsberg says, "we have a lot of friends."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.