Quickly approaching its 175th anniversary, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has built one of the most enviable reputations of any performing arts group in the world. The orchestra spent much of the 19th and early 20th centuries premiering works by composers that are often thought of now as repertory – Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, two Brahms Symphonies, a bunch of Strauss II’s walzer – but the orchestra currently spends most of its time perfecting works by old masters. So it was all the more intriguing to hear the VPO performing new(ish) music straight from its own bloodline (René Staar) under the direction of Maestro Franz Welser-Möst alongside works by Schubert, Richard Strauss and, inevitably, Strauss II in their first concert of 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Franz Welser-Möst © Michael Pöhn
Franz Welser-Möst
© Michael Pöhn

In collaboration with the playwright Georg von Hofmann, Schubert wrote music for the melodrama Die Zauberharfe in 1820, just a year after writing one of his most important chamber works, the “Trout” Quintet. Proving to be another failed embarkation into the world of opera for Schubert, the fully staged work still receives little attention to this day. The overture itself is notably less tuneful than those by Rossini or Weber in the same decade, but nevertheless magnifies the struggle between good and evil/light and dark/major and minor. Maestro Welser-Möst successfully restrained the orchestra’s huge string section from overpowering Schubert’s delicate wind passages, while emboldening the burly chords, like those of the opening passage, to heighten the drama in the dualistic battle. The result was a perfectly pleasant contrast to the piece to follow.

Time Recycling, written in 2014 by long-time VSO violinist René Staar, is an anxious romp of faintly stylized music that tumbles through a series contrasting episodes. From the very beginning, when the strings, with large mutes across their entire bridges, create a layer of muddled cries under wind and brass chords that stack to form cacophonous and mathematically-complex structures, it's anyone’s guess which direction it will take rhythmically, melodically, harmonically, or otherwise. Unpredictability defines the nature of the composition, and it lends itself well to the identity of New York City. For instance, it might be easier to view the episodes individually as if scanning the floors of a skyscraper: an aleatoric windstorm, a Bernstein-esque mambo (complete with a chant), a jazzy Gershwin-esque clarinet motif – soulfully sung here by clarinetist Daniel Ottensamer – a Spaghetti Western style trumpet solo. Would I look forward to hearing the piece again? Probably not. But the musicians of the VSO should be applauded for breaking out of their cage of exactitude and adding such an outside-the-box composition to their impressive list of works premiered.

Richard Strauss also explored a similar idea of recycling in his tone poem Ein Heldenleben (1898) when he quoted nearly 30 of his own motifs to encapsulate his most revered hero: himself. The richly orchestrated score poses technical challenges for most sections of the ensemble; however, the exactitude and perfection demanded by the VPO easily made for an anxiety-free listening experience. The orchestra’s bass section notably rocked the opening theme with dexterous clarity through each punctuated sixteenth, and Concertmaster Volkhard Steude took on the devilish “sidekick” cadenzas with admirable conviction, showing off his ability to not only lead the strings but also to shred the bow like a soloist. The most distinguished solo from the wind section came from bassoonist Sophie Dartigalongue whose well-fortified tone carried the orchestra into the penultimate section, “The Hero’s Works of Peace”. After a thrilling performance of Heldenleben, the orchestra encored with Strauss II’s Voices of Spring waltz, giving the audience their much-needed dose of Viennese nostalgia with a reminder that March is merely days away.