Sounds of the Symphony

Classic Arts Features   Sounds of the Symphony
Two of the world's great orchestras: one 30 years old, one going back more than a century and a half: grace the stages of Carnegie Hall this month.

"Carnegie Hall is one of the very few places that belong on the Mount Olympus of music," Clemens Hellsberg, president of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, says with a smile. He ticks off others on the fingers of one hand‹the Amsterdam Concertgebouw; La Scala in Milan; and the Musikverein and Opera House (Staatsoper), both homes of the Vienna Philharmonic. A member of the first violin section of the latter's venerable and famously self-managed orchestra, Hellsberg continues, "All the great concert halls have their own particular history and personality. And playing at Carnegie Hall has been a big goal for every musician."

"From the day Carnegie Hall opened its doors in 1891, orchestras have been an integral part of the Hall and its programming. And that tradition continues to this day," says Klaus Jacobs, Vice Chairman and Acting Executive Director of Carnegie Hall. "As an international concert hall," he continues, "we are proud to present the greatest orchestras from all over the world. This season we have more than 60 different concerts by nine international and 15 American orchestras." Among the international orchestras is the superb Vienna Philharmonic, which has presented an annual series of concerts here since 1989. On March 11-13, the orchestra will be performing works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and others, with conductor Mariss Jansons.

Among the American orchestras, New York's own Orchestra of St. Luke's is a regular guest every season, with its own concert series at Carnegie Hall. For its fourth and final concert of the season, the orchestra, its principal conductor, Donald Runnicles, and pianist Ivan Moravec join forces on March 31 for a concert of Mozart, Janácek, and Martinu.

St. Luke's, which grew out of a chamber music ensemble that is still its backbone, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Its history is entwined with Carnegie Hall. "The conductor John Nelson, with whom we had worked at Caramoor [International Music Festival], actually introduced us to Carnegie Hall," says St. Luke's President and Executive Director Marianne C. Lockwood. "He suggested us as the musicians for some Handel operas with Marilyn Horne, Kathleen Battle, Sam Ramey.... Suddenly we were catapulted. Then we were asked to do a series of Strauss operas. And we decided it really was time to establish our own series. Luck was with us. Carnegie Hall, I think, liked being home to younger New York orchestras‹not only us, but Orpheus, the American Composers Orchestra, and others."

Asked about the Hall's acoustical largess, conductor Donald Runnicles says, "It's no coincidence that the greatest orchestras in the world play regularly in the greatest halls in the world. That is the way an orchestra hears itself. It clearly has an impact on their music making and gives the musicians a psychological boost. A hall is like an instrument‹you play it." Maestro Runnicles, who has been with St. Luke's since 2001, has also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic from time to time since 1991, in both of its main venues. "Vienna is a fiercely independent orchestra," he says, "and its sound influences me when I'm elsewhere with other orchestras. It's a sound that many composers have had in their heads when composing. I return to Vienna regularly to tank up, to remind myself of that sound."

Hellsberg explains the Vienna sound: "There are the instruments, of course, especially the oboe and horn [which for Vienna are made and fingered differently than standard instruments]. And there is the local tradition of music education [of students succeeding teachers] that in some sections goes back uninterrupted to 1819, when Beethoven and Schubert were alive. And then there is the Musikverein. I am convinced that its acoustics have a great influence on our sound. It gives you a special support."

He remembers indelibly the Vienna Philharmonic concerts of music by Bruckner, Schubert, and the Strauss family with the conductor Herbert von Karajan in his last Carnegie Hall appearances. "Even though it's a huge hall, you feel it's very clear, even for members of the audience who are far away. As a musician you feel very tiny onstage, but you know everything you do can be heard by everyone. And that is a great feeling."

St. Luke's cellist Myron Lutzke agrees. "When I was a Juilliard student," he says, "I got a ticket in the last row of the balcony for the 85th anniversary gala with Isaac Stern, Fischer-Dieskau‹an all-star cast. And I could hear everything." Now, as a regular performer onstage, he praises "the cohesive warmth that brings the sound together. One can deal with subtleties in a wider spectrum than in other places," he says. "And for St. Luke's, the enhancement of warm sound lets us explore color, textures, and new ways of shaping sound, for example, with different bowing."

Audiences this month can hear for themselves all the nuances of these two orchestras at Carnegie Hall. "Mariss Jansons works with our sound," says the Vienna's Hellsberg. "That's why we've invited him back often since his first time in 1992. He tries to convey what he's feeling about the music and the musicians." Each of the orchestra's three Carnegie Hall programs in March will include at least one work by a composer‹Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg‹who is strongly identified with Vienna.

Maestro Runnicles will lead St. Luke's in Janácek and a Mozart symphony and concerto (K.503 with pianist Moravec); then he'll put aside his baton to play in Martinu's La revue de cuisine, a jazz ballet suite for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, and piano. "I'm terrified," he admits, anticipating his Carnegie Hall debut as a pianist. "But it will be a thrill. And the music is enormously witty and charming."

Margaret Shakespeare, who lives in New York and the farmlands of Long Island, writes often about music.

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