Concert For Peace, Vienna

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, August 2, 2018—(Manfred Honeck, European Union Youth Orchestra, Thomas Hampson (baritone), Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone), Maria Nazarova, Cornelia Horak (soprano), Iris Vermillion (mezzo-soprano), Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno).

Easy to overlook or underestimate, a recent “Concert for Peace” at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s cathedral–sounding half hackneyed, half like a tourist trap–turned out to be a first class affair with first class ingredients. Manfred Honeck, the European Union Youth Orchestra, and a quartet of renown vocalists took to the sacred stage and performed a medley of classical pieces that, had they not been so well chosen and fit together, might have come across as awkward, maudlin, or cheap, like any given “Symphonic Gala”.

But Holst’s “Mars” from the Planets set the tone just right–a work that either totally encapsulates a world that rushed into World War I (the 100th anniversary of the end of which this concert celebrated) or else has become so ubiquitous a soundtrack to depictions of that period of Europe’s history that we necessarily associate the sounds with the pictures. For one sitting close enough to the orchestra, the cathedral’s acoustic added rather than detracted, immersing said listener in a harrowing 360-degree field of sound with organ, timpani, and military drum all going at it with grim vigor.

The choral gorgeousness of Górecki’s Totus Tuus–the kind that brought 20th century music firmly back into the realm of beauty–took over seamlessly, courtesy of the roaring Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno which performed splendidly except for one bass showing off real depth and constantly dropping an octave below his colleagues. Perhaps the finest surprise was how effectively Resphigi’s Pini presso una catacomba (from Pini di Roma) rose out of the tombs. The things the right spotlight can do: You might hear Pini di Roma a dozen times and never notice this part so conspicuously. It spoke not only to the sensitive pianissimo treatment of the young musicians but also Honeck’s deft hand in picking these bits and pieces to curate a coherent whole.

If there was a single miscalculation that evening, it might have been the baritone’s melodramatic, ruthlessly sentimentalized, over-accentuated and slurred Schubert Litany for the Feast of All Souls (with questionable high notes, to boot). Why underline that which is already italicized? An artless rendition would have done better to convey the sheer beauty of the work. The cello solo in Joseph Haydn’s “Qui tollis peccata mundi“ from the Missa in tempore belli was stupendous, while the bass-baritone, pushing his notes through the bridge of his nose, hovered perilously between beauty and caricature. (The rest of the concert he spent conducting along to the music or mouthing the text to other singers’ parts–presumably to convey to all how very much music moves him, involuntarily even, to the core.)

With grand importance but absolutely befitting its character of a pathos-laden dirge, Thomas Hampson then pulled off Gustav Mahler’s Tambourgesell (Des Knaben Wunderhorn) with aplomb. After Bruckner’s Ave Maria, EUYO musicians stood up and said “peace” in all their various languages–a stunt that veered close to the corny, except with one Finnish second violinist who made a one-word performance art out of those two syllables: Rauha!

Many composers have died inopportunely early, but not many so lamentably early in their ever-so-promising careers as did Lili Boulanger, who died 100 years ago, 24 years old and hardly having gotten started. One of her last works was Pie Jesu–possibly the opening of a planned Requiem. It is a hauntingly sensitive piece for high voice (Maria Nazarova), string quartet (the whole string section on this occasion), harp, and organ. Even with the tuning of the St. Stephen’s organ very different from the orchestra’s, the coy play with tenderness, sweetness, and shifting dissonances was subtly hair-raising. That left the glorious finale of Mahler’s Second Symphony to end the concert, notable for the smoky “Urlicht” of Iris Vermillion, whose concentrated dark red velvet tone–same color as her dress–was very tightly controlled but without artifice and gorgeous.

For all its musical success, such a concert, with so lofty a claim or aim–purporting to celebrate and promote peace–raises questions: Given 70 years of peace in (Western) Europe, how much can a people who only know peace and prosperity actually value peace and prosperity? Can people of the generation of the EUYO, twenty-somethings and advanced teenagers, meaningfully understand the gift of peace when the only whiff of war they have ever gleaned would have come through films or TV? It can in fact be the sole purpose of such concerts to raise such valuable questions and, at best, stimulate self-examination. No more. Music and culture do not inherently suggest or foster peace; history suggests the sound of music to accompany us marching to war as likely as for it to underscore our sipping champagne. In that humble extra-musical sense, the atmospheric concert will have been the success that it was in a musical one.

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Gustav Holst: “Mars”, The Planets Op. 32; Henryk Górecki: Totus Tuus; Ottorino Respighi: “Pini presso una catacomba“ from Pines of Rome; Franz Schubert: Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen; Joseph Haydn: “Qui tollis peccata mundi“ from the Missa in tempore belli (Paukenmesse); Gustav Mahler: “Der Tambourgesell“ from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; Anton Bruckner: Ave Maria; Lili Boulanger: Pie Jesu; Gustav Mahler: Finale, Symphony No. 2