The Australian

September 29, 2011

Romance with the Viennese tradition

By Matthew Westwood

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is making a return visit to these shores with a program that should be second nature to this gilded ensemble. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler: these composers all made their careers in Vienna, and their music - from classical Mozart to Mahler's high romanticism - is under the Viennese orchestra's skin.

"The philharmonic is so wonderful that really they have these styles perfectly," says conductor Christoph Eschenbach, who will be directing the VPO on its Australian tour starting in Perth today.

At the time of this interview, though, he was rehearsing with the orchestra in Vienna ahead of the trip: Bruckner's Romantic symphony in the morning and Mahler's song-cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn in the afternoon. Surely the VPO players know this music so well they don't need a conductor? Not so.

"No, they respond very closely," Eschenbach says.

"In fact they want the [conductor's] personal opinion of pieces. They don't want to play just their performance of a piece . . . They really wait for a very special reading, and they are very attentive in putting into reality what the conductor wants."

The VPO is famously independent and jealous of its traditions. Founded in 1842, it is a self-governing organisation, where the players elect their own administrative committee.

There is no chief conductor and perhaps the orchestra doesn't need one: every conductor of note has worked with the renowned orchestra.

Players are eligible for membership of the philharmonic only after they have played with the orchestra at the Vienna State Opera for three years.

Membership has traditionally been exclusive and local - family names recur through the generations - but the orchestra's profile is changing, slowly. Only in 1997 did the players vote to allow female members. Australian Simone Young became the first woman to conduct at the Vienna State Opera in 1993 and the first to conduct the philharmonic at the Musikverein in 2005.

"What is played on those beams of wood on that stage in the Musikverein, and who has conducted there, it's a big history," Eschenbach says. "For example, the Brahms Tragic Overture: this year 130 years ago it was first performed in this hall by the Vienna Philharmonic. They can be proud; they love to be proud of that tradition."

The VPO players have resisted the globalisation of orchestral timbre, where orchestras become less distinctive because of increased touring and recording.

"No, they are one of those orchestras with their own sound, and they want to keep that sound," Eschenbach says. "It is the Viennese school of string playing, the Viennese school of woodwind playing, the Viennese horn, the Viennese oboe. This marks the sound and they are very careful with new people coming in that they identify with the sound. It's rather unique."

Eschenbach, 71, was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw in Poland), and has enjoyed a dual career as pianist and conductor. On piano, he is noted for his recordings of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms; in recent years he has recorded the Schubert song-cycles with Matthias Goerne, the baritone who will be singing Mahler with the VPO on tour.

He studied conducting with George Szell and was mentored by Herbert von Karajan for 25 years. He counts himself as part of the same Austro-German musical tradition to which Vienna is central.

"I was born in [the region of] Silesia, which belonged once to Austria. And my mother's side was Hungarian. So I am a little bit of this middle-European breed and I can identify with this Vienna tradition, this Viennese way of making music."

Eschenbach has held podium positions with orchestras such as the Tonhalle in Zurich, Houston Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris. Last year he took up his role as music director of the US National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

Among his programs in the US capital has been a mini-festival of music from or influenced by India: Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila symphony, for example, along with tabla player Zakir Hussain.

His tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra was not without incident. According to press reports, musicians there were unhappy with Eschenbach's appointment, citing a lack of musical chemistry. In a 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed wrote that while Eschenbach was an exciting and sophisticated interpreter, "just about everything" was wrong with his appointment at Philadelphia.

Eschenbach parted company with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2008 and has returned as a guest conductor. The orchestra, though, has since fallen on hard times. Earlier this year it became the first orchestra in the US to file for bankruptcy.

"Of all the trouble coming up . . . I saw that it would be an unsolveable problem because of certain mismanagement there, so I decided not to stay," Eschenbach says. "It was interpreted that the orchestra didn't like me; on the contrary, it's a very close bond. It was confirmed in a large European tour after my five years there, with them, and it was really a love affair, you know."

Eschenbach first visited Australia in 1988 when he conducted the Australian Youth Orchestra in a series of Bicentenary concerts and a European tour. He will return in 2013 to again lead the AYO in concerts here and in Europe. "I have wonderful memories of this tour," he says of the 1988 concerts. "Wonderful young musicians, perfectly prepared."

First, of course, comes the VPO. The orchestra first toured Australia in 2006 with Russian maestro Valery Gergiev. This time with Eschenbach it will visit Perth, Brisbane and Sydney before travelling to Hong Kong, Macau and Tokyo.

Will Australian audiences be getting the A-team of this multi-tasking orchestra?

"Of course," Eschenbach declares. "They are all wonderful. When they tour it's the best people."

(The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is presenting concert programs in Perth, tonight and tomorrow; Brisbane, Sunday and Monday; and Sydney, October 5-7.)

Copyright 2011 The Australian