Friday, 9 March 2012

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s schweigsamen Frauentag

To honour the venerable old white men  of conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker have their ‘Philharmonische Feierstunde’ tradition, which is essentially a glorified press conference in which both parties bask in the glow of mutual adoration. Less likely to set off the gag reflex are the more informal Gespräche they occasionally put on for bright young things like Yannick Nézet-Séguin. YN-S will conduct the Philis in St. Pölten and Vienna this weekend, and sat down with chairman of the orchestra Clemens Hellsberg at the Haus der Musik yesterday evening for an interview which out-Faymanned our wily Blair-like chancellor.

That is on every topic except, bizarrely, for Philadelphia. Asked about the problems he now presides over, Nézet-Séguin said that the orchestra needed to find new ways to bring costs under control, though neglected to mention fundraising or the recent labour agreement which makes large cuts to salaries and pensions. America’s overpaid stagehands are always a soft target (Hellsberg, sarcastically: ‘It really requires an expert to move a chair from here to there.’ YN-S: ‘One who probably gets paid more than me.’) but elsewhere the oh-so­-witty repartee threatened to cross the line and a point about the orchestra resting on its laurels was laid on a bit thick. Nézet-Séguin only just stopped short of calling his musicians lazy.

On other subjects he was just as garrulous but took more care to parse his words. It took him less than ten minutes to take the Philharmoniker’s variation on the ethanol pledge, and with minimal prompting from Hellsberg (‘the most wonderful ensemble in the world’ and the ‘holy of holies’ appropriately, um, corny). He also rambled on about tradition and history to answer the leading question of what he finds  most special about the Viennese sound. And the obligatory deferential discussion about deference rather descended into schleimen, as expected. Hellsberg also quoted a provocative YN-S interview about the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the political situation in the Netherlands, but Nézet-Séguin didn’t bite.

Yesterday was of course International Women’s Day and I could also mention that the Haus der Musik hosts the Philharmoniker’s intermittently accessible archive, but I’m feeling a rare generosity towards Clemens Hellsberg, who was at his least oily and even in matters philharmonisch didn’t always fish for compliments. His questions were much more interesting and concise than Nézet-Séguin’s vague and wordy answers, and he switched between German and English more competently than any Kulturjournalist I could name.

A musical portion to the evening was provided by the Ensemble Wien, one of the many string quartets drawn from the Philharmoniker’s ranks and the only one with a bass in place of a cello. The group has been around for years but none of the original members still play and the present line-up includes the orchestra’s first female (and IMHO, best) concertmaster, Albena Danailova. The Haus der Musik is really a museum* and no place to play music, with their tiny event room on the top floor possessing a wretchedly dry acoustic, but the ensemble succeeded against the odds, swiftly adjusting from a slight thinness in the first movement of Schubert’s early string quartet no. 10, D 87 to a lushness and depth of (Viennese) sound in arrangements of Brahms’s first Hungarian dance and Strauss der Vater’s Sorgenbrecher waltz. Precision was spotless and the playing and phrasing full of colour and flair. I don’t have a huge tolerance for triple time, so it was good to hear some Strauss rooted in Schubert rather than saturated in Schmalz.

*One of the exhibits is a simulated New Year’s Concert which kids can ‘conduct’ by remote control baton. I’m told that if they don’t make the grade then the video cuts to footage of the Philis walking off in high dudgeon. Presumably no PR agency was consulted in the making of this film.

YN-S image credit: Sisi Burn

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