Austrian Consul General Ulrike Ritzinger was at the Arlington on Wednesday night. Were you? The occasion was the second Arts & Lectures-sponsored Santa Barbara appearance of the Vienna Philharmonic. Maestro Lorin Maazel conducted what any orchestral music fan would agree was one of the big events of the year. Opera Santa Barbara’s Wednesday-night dress rehearsal for Falstaff rendered the Granada unavailable for this concert, which was just as well, as it gave several hundred additional people a chance to hear the world’s top-rated symphony orchestra.
The evening’s program could not have been more Viennese, yet there were no Strauss waltzes involved. In fact, the version of Vienna on offer was one of the most unpredictable that one could imagine, comprised as it was of an unfinished work, the Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 of Franz Schubert, and an eccentric one, the Symphony No. 4 in G Major of Gustav Mahler. Although I heard some grumbling at intermission about the majestic (as in slow) tempo at which the conductor took the Schubert, to these ears the orchestra was not just flawless but positively brilliant in exposing the implicit structure of this enigmatic fragment.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, with its gorgeous final movement crowned by a single voice, is symphonic music at its most ambitious. The aim is nothing less than a reinvention of the orchestra, and with his riot of influences, dynamics, groupings, and rhythms, the composer very nearly succeeds. It’s a whole new world, and the Vienna Phil, along with vocalist Juliane Banse, was made to discover it.