One of the main purposes of my trip to Austria was, of course, to attend the Salzburg Festival for the very first time. The Festival, which was established in 1920, is one of the world’s most prestigious summer festivals for classical music and opera, and is usually where all of the biggest and most popular names collide for just over a month in Salzburg. I was lucky to get tickets to two events at this year’s Festival, with the first one being a concert of Strauss and Bruckner by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Muti.
Maestro Muti’s association with the Salzburg Festival goes a long way back…all the way back to 1971 (45 years ago!!), when Karajan asked him to conduct Donizetti’s Don Pasquale with the Vienna Philharmonic. Now, just after turning 75, Maestro Muti is back in Salzburg to conduct three performances – the concert I went to is the second performance of the three. In fact, this concert was Maestro Muti’s 250th performance in Salzburg (he also just celebrated 250 performances with the CSO this past December)! Some people argue that it is, indeed, Maestro Muti who has since taken up Karajan’s helm at the Festival for all these years, and while my association with the Festival has been short (so I wouldn’t personally know the influence Maestro Muti has had on the Festival), I think this magazine cover sums it up pretty well:
After going on an early tour of the three Festival Halls that conveniently ended just about a half hour before the concert, we made our way to the upper level of the Grosses Festspielhaus. By the start of the concert, the hall was completely packed with people from all over the world – there was an entire row of Japanese people sitting in front of us and sitting right next to us was a group of French people – just a reminder how the Festival attracts music lovers from everywhere.
The Vienna Philharmonic concert series at the Festival this year is dedicated to works that was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic itself. So, the first work on the program was Richard Strauss’ Der Bürger als Edelmann, which Strauss himself conducted in 1920 in support of the first edition of the Salzburg Festival. This suite is quite fun to listen to (Strauss loved it himself): it’s got a quick, bubbly opening that hops around and subsequently goes into many moments of extravagant and elegant melody, characteristic of Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier. The piece was also a great opportunity for us in the audience to hear the artistry and virtuosity of the musicians in the Vienna Philharmonic, particularly retiring concertmaster Rainer Küchl, whose playing was a delight to witness live. Maestro Muti – please bring this piece to Chicago!!
After intermission, the program shifted to another piece premiered under the Vienna Philharmonic, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2. Whereas in the Strauss, the ensemble was much smaller for a chamber-like atmosphere, the entirety of the orchestra was brought out for Bruckner’s 2nd. The highly introspective, personal tone at the beginning of the piece, in combination with the fierce drama and urgency of the finale was sublime, and expertly drawn out from the experienced Vienna Philharmonic players by Maestro Muti. The famous warmth and lush sound of the strings section was in full force throughout the piece, evoking a beautifully tranquil air. However one cannot disregard the rest of this brilliant orchestra, especially the brass and winds – they brought the sensitivity and power required for this piece. In the past, Maestro Muti has expressed a desire to record a full Bruckner symphony cycle with the CSO – hopefully this is realized and then I can listen to this brilliant interpretation of Muti’s on repeat on my iTunes.
After the performance, we went backstage to say hi to Maestro Muti. It took a while to figure out how to get backstage though – once you get your name checked off the list by the security guard, you enter this area on the left side of the Grosses Festspielhaus, but there isn’t an indication which way to go to get to the dressing rooms. Eventually, we made our way up to the dressing rooms, and the first person I see is…Placido Domingo!! His dressing room was the first on the left in the hallway as we entered, and I’m pretty sure that my jaw dropped the moment I saw him. I’ve got a bunch of his recordings (with Muti too 😀 ), and of course he is a living legend. He was greeting people in the hall, and eventually did say hello to us, before making his way to his dressing room and doing some vocal warmups on the piano. (He still sounds so good, regardless of his age.) By the time we got to Maestro Muti’s dressing room, there was already a small group of people waiting to talk to him (CSO’s Jeff Alexander was there). Since there was a CD signing taking place right after (fortunately and unfortunately in this situation), Maestro Muti was quickly whisked away to the foyer of the Grosses Festspielhaus, so we couldn’t get an opportunity to speak to him, but we went downstairs to the foyer and waited at the end of the line to get our programs signed. Also…did I mention the fact that you have to buy programs at the Festival? Little things like this make me appreciate the fact that I get to go to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (where programs are included!!).
Anyways, Maestro Muti signed all three of our programs (two for us, and one for our piano teacher), and I mentioned how we’re students from Chicago, in case he didn’t remember who I was – because let’s face it, he meets so many people every single day, how in the world could he remember every single person?! But…to my surprise and delight, he does remember me!! When he said that, my jaw dropped again and I think I responded to the extent of, “Wait…really?! That’s so cool!”, which elicited a small chuckle from him 😀 My sister told him that she would be attending his concert at the Krannert Center of UIUC, which he was pleased to hear. Funny though, he’s also conducting a Strauss/Bruckner program there too, as well in Chicago (I’ve already got my ticket!). All in all, the concert was a magnificent first experience at the Salzburg Festival. Tomorrow will be my second experience – a lieder recital by Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger!