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February 28, 2011
Vienna Philharmonic impressive in rare concert


By Edward Ortiz

How good is the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra?

That answer is not easily gleaned if you live in Northern California.

The last time the orchestra came to the region was 1987.

And so it was with great expectation that the Vienna Philharmonic made a rare appearance in Berkeley this weekend.

This orchestra, which gave its first performance in 1842, appears consistently atop best orchestra lists. It has so for decades.

And Sunday's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in A minor, "Tragic," at Zellerbach Hall at the University of California at Berkeley campus was an elegant example of why that honor is earned.

The performance was the last of three concerts that completed a residency at Cal Performances. It's hard to imagine the orchestra did not save their best for last.

Any stand out performance by an orchestra is one that opens a door and allows certain revelations about what was going on inside a composer's brain and heart. And revelation was everywhere at play Sunday afternoon with this orchestra, under the tight direction of conductor Semyon Bychkov.

This was a performance that made the densest passages of this difficult symphony fall upon the ear as clear and light. And the lighter passages were brimming with musical color and punch.

This hour and a half long work hails from Mahler's middle period, and is a dark work that does not end on a triumphant up note. Although the work is titled "Tragic," it approaches that word from its Aristotelean meaning - wherein "tragic" describes that which is most promising and vexing in the human condition. As such there is both a sense of the exalted and the fraught in this symphony. The evolution is from major to minor keys, and this complex and curious work evolves almost horizontally, rather than vertically.

On Sunday Bychkov chose to perform the symphony with the Scherzo as the second movement. That movement bloomed with the clarity of an alpine river - each note and musical phrase was savored as much as finely etched.

Some of the best playing in the evening was found in the middle movements of the Scherzo and the Andante. The evolution of music from one section of the orchestra to another was seamless. Bychkov proved deft at coaxing elegant and emotional playing from the musicians during the pianissimo passages. But he also was able to communicate the great sweep of this cinemascopic-like work.

Bychkov, while conducting from memory, looked as if his connection to the Vienna musicians was a primal one. His paces were crisp but never hurried. In the dramatic Allegro that opens the work, Bychkov let the music play out without forcing any of the musical statements, and the same applied to the massive Finale. Except with the Finale, Bychkov was masterful in keeping the orchestra tightly wound around each musical idea, and this served to build the rising tension.

The final statement of this bold work ends with one cleverly placed and plucked note. And the silence that descended after it was a note unto itself, too. Bychkov and orchestra honored that silence with seconds of absolute stillness. It was a note without a key. The moment was an example of how every inch of this great symphony had been given the greatest thought.

Call the Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071.

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