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May 19, 2008

Renaissance Man: The Vienna Philharmonic Gets Ugly

Ticket for the Vienna Philharmonic
Magic ticket.


Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. So far Mark has "mastered" golf in Scotland, "excelled" at gardening in England, and "ruled" the kitchens of Paris. His next task: playing the piano in Vienna.

I bought the most expensive ticket to what may be the finest philharmonic in the world, which just happens to play in what may be the finest concert hall in the world, and the whole event was marred by ugly controversy.

Let me explain.

These past few days, I have been studying piano--if "study" is indeed the correct verb--at Vienna's Bosendorfer Studio. The studio is basically a showroom for some of the world's very best pianos, but if you're well connected, you can take lessons there. It's the musical equivalent of learning how to drive at the Ferrari tent in Monaco during the Grand Prix, only there tends to be a lot less cologne worn in Vienna than in Monaco. The Bosendorfer Studio is situated in Vienna's Musikverein, which is bound by Bosendorferstrasse--basically Bosendorfer Street. I'm guessing that at some point locals thought about changing the name of Vienna to Bosendorfer Town, but it would translate as Bosendorferdorf, and that sounds silly even to a German ear.

Bosendorfer Street

As locally famous as Bosendorfer may be, the building is even better known for the Golden Hall. That's the 48-meter-long concert hall where the Vienna Philharmonic plays. It's considered one of the top three concert halls in the world. As much as I was entertained by my own melodic adventures at the keyboard, in the name of artistic development I decided to hear someone else take a run at some classical music.

That weekend two concerts were scheduled. Saturday was sold out. But there were two tickets available for Sunday's, one of which was the worst seat in the house--at the back of the upper gallery, facing, apparently, the wrong way. The other seat was five rows back from the stage, directly behind the conductor. It was, in the words of the woman selling tickets, the best seat in the house. Arguably, it was the best seat in any house. You already know which one I bought.

Daniel Barenboim--the Argentine wundermusician--would be playing Mozart's 27th Piano Concerto in the first half, and conducting Bruckner's Ninth Symphony in the second. I prepared myself accordingly. I bought and uploaded each work onto my iPhone and wandered around Vienna's old city center with headphones on. Occasionally, I would pause to listen to a string duo playing on the street, or stare awestruck at some of the finest eurotrash I have ever laid eyes on. (There's nothing like watching eurotrash accompanied by Bruckner.)

iPhone in Vienna

Street musicians in Vienna

Eurotrash in Vienna

Sunday arrived. I put on my very best Renaissance Man outfit--it included golf pants--and walked down Bosendorferstrasse to the Musikverein. An usher ushered me to my thrillingly good seat. To my left, a Japanese couple was snapping photos with a big Nikon. To my right, an attractive and well-dressed Viennese couple--the husband not in golf pants--chatted to one another. There we all were on Bosendorferstrasse, whispering distance from the Bosendorfer Studio, and sitting on stage, not 20 feet in front of me, was a frigging Steinway and Sons piano.

The musicians walked in and took their seats like everything was normal. The crowd hushed. Barenboim appeared. He, too, was participating in the absurd charade that everything was completely fine. The crowd clapped. Barenboim nodded at the crowd, then at the musicians. And then silence, that pregnant moment of audio emptiness right before the music commences. I considered standing up, pointing at the Steinway and shouting, "This is an outrage!" But it just didn't seem like the thing to do in golf pants.

I'm glad I didn't. Barenboim raised his arms, and punched the air to cue the first note. What a note. Or should I say, what a collection of notes. To borrow a term from recording engineers, what a sound image. Now I understand what all the fuss is about acoustics.

The truth is, people, that opening note, conceived of by Mozart a little more than 200 years ago and played in a hall built almost 140 years ago, sounded so pretty that I actually cried. I didn't weep or anything--the Japanese woman next to me did not have to supply me with camera wipes to dry my eyes. All those notes played by all those instruments set off a cascade of similarly beautiful thoughts. I thought of my wife, and my daughter, and the two little babies that are growing in my wife's tummy. There was a nature montage in there, too, some puppies, a panning shot of the Chelsea Physic Garden, and that time I got to sit in the back of an F-18 on takeoff. Thereafter, things got a little teary.

Anyway, that was the first note. A whole bunch more followed.

After the intermission, it was time for Bruckner. He's a bit of an odd duck. He spent most of his professional life worshipping Wagner. (You know you need a girlfriend when...) On headphones, his music sounded dissonant and a bit geeky to me. Live, it's a whole different ball of wax. At times it was peculiarly beautiful, and at other times it was demented and angry, but in a seriously good way.

When it was all over, the crowd would not stop clapping. Barenboim had to return three times from offstage to take his bow. But here's the thing: He did not get a standing ovation.

I point this out because North American crowds have a bad habit of handing out a standing ovation to any sailor with a conductor's baton who happens to be passing through town. Remember, no one respects an easy lay. My own hometown of Toronto is egregiously guilty in this regard. A guy with bad indigestion and a Bic lighter could get a standing ovation there, so long as he's named Anton and comes from central Europe.

Later, the crowd dispersed into the bright light of early afternoon, chatting, smiling, but still blown away. I turned to Albert Frantz, whose seat wasn't nearly as good as mine, and asked him a question: "So what does it take to get a standing ovation in Vienna?"

He thought about it for a second and said, "Wow, that's a good question."

That Steinway, incidentally, sounded wonderful.

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