03/05/2013 02:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Standing for Older Traditions

Last weekend, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, arguably the most prestigious ensemble in the world, performed three concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall. I attended two of them, on March 2 and March 3, and was surprised by how many Japanese people there were in the most expensive seats.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (and the Vienna State Opera) has a queer relationship with Japanese people, particularly those of the older generation. While the orchestra is certainly very fine, in Japan its reputation has reached mythical proportions -- and if you are ever bored enough to watch the New Year's Concert held in Musikverein Saal every January 1, you will notice that half the audience seem to be Japanese, dressed in all their finery. Both the VPO and the opera have websites in Japanese -- as one Viennese musician pointed out, it is the Japanese tourists who heavily support these institutions, buying up the most expensive tickets months in advance.

Elsewhere in the world, the VPO is still a venerated orchestra, but has earned a controversially conservative reputation -- their refusal for many years to hire female orchestra members, (they only allowed female full members in 1997) and their refusal to hire non-Caucasian musicians. But I digress. Carnegie Hall on Saturday night had an audience slightly different from other days. Judging by the fact that there was a fair amount of applause between each movement in the Schubert Symphony No.6, it was an audience not used to classical music concerts, but had been drawn in by the VPO's prestige.

The VPO, led by Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, played impeccably. It was perfectly balanced, elegant, exquisite. It reminded me of beautiful artifacts of porcelain in a museum. I would admire them, but ten minutes later, I wouldn't be able to recall what they were. Don't get me wrong. The VPO played flawlessly, and Welser-Möst isn't as bad as some say he is. (In London (where he led the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1990 to 1996) they called him "Frankly Worse than Most," which I think is unwarranted.) He is a very skilled conductor, and cuts a very elegant, refined figure. Yet, there is a disconnect between the music and emotion. Welser-Möst is detached and cool. His music, beautiful though it may be, elicits no emotional response.

Contemporary composer Jörg Widmann's Lied was an intriguing blend of Mahleresque lush grandiose grief and conceptual clusters of abstract sound. His music has a dream-like quality, with Schubert themes floating in and out and appearing distorted. Yet, it is not fragmented and disjointed; there truly is a song throughout the 25-minute piece, pulling it together.

The concert finished on a merrier note, with Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's merry pranks.) It was excellently executed, but would have benefitted from a more joyful mood.

The concert on Sunday started out with Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, with German Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist. His sound was rather soft and expressive, which might have worked well with Baroque or classical music, but in these more modern composers, one wants a more steely gleaming sound, like Anne Sophie Mutter has. However, Zimmermann showed his mettle in the second movement, playing with much more passion and sharpness than he had in the first. Still, his rendition was more poetic than violent, and the poetic approach worked best in the sections where the atonal Berg flirted with wisps of tonality, such as the Bach-derived chorale towards the end. For his encore, Zimmermann played Bach; the Andante from Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor. Simple, expressive and melodic, he left nothing to be desired.

The second half consisted of Bruckner's Symphony No.4, "Romantic." The string section played with full-blooded warmth and a luminous sound, like a lush, thick, green forest. The woodwinds were really remarkable; the flutes in particular. Bruckner's music is quite abstract -- it is more a state than a narrative. That state is usually exaltation and grace and there are a lot of grand gestures -- the VPO and Welser-Möst had all those in spades.

Frankly, I outgrew Bruckner when I was about 11. It seemed very beautiful and romantic at first, but even as a child, I lost patience with the repetitive vast exaltation. At the concert I managed to stay awake, but during the quieter moments, I could hear snoring from the row behind me. I couldn't help but think that the VPO could have brought more exciting music to New York -- Bruckner is so homogeneous, it probably wouldn't make a huge difference even if an orchestra lesser than the VPO performed it.

While there were one or two die-hard fans cheering madly, most of the audience seemed a bit sluggish. (Not surprising, after a Bruckner symphony.) On my way out, I overheard two young men saying they were dissatisfied by the orchestra, and would have been upset if they had shelled out $250 for the more expensive seats. I felt underwhelmed as well. Disappointed, even though the orchestra played flawlessly. Why? A part of it is the lack of emotional warmth, which may be characteristic of Welser-Möst. I've heard really intense music from the VPO before; namely, when Valery Gergiev conducted Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony. Yet, the VPO is a completely autonomous orchestra, and unlike most ensembles around the world, the orchestra chooses which conductors to work with. The VPO choose to work with Welser-Möst, and I assume they do that because they like the way he makes music.

While the VPO is an extremely high-level orchestra, I feel that it epitomizes the kind of classical music the majority of the world chose to move away from. Snobbish, high-class, expensive and prestigious, it is a relic to be worshipped. There are still some worshippers, but I wonder how long that will last. Our culture now values things that actively engage our attention, things that elicit an emotional connection, things that are vibrant and exciting. Almost all classical music institutions are trying to move in that direction; to stay current and not lose their audience. Perhaps it is the VPO's intention to continue standing for an older time, an older tradition. What the result of that will be, only time will tell.