VIENNA - "Yay! We're home!" said Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Yumi Kendall after a sound-check rehearsal at the Musikverein.
Though 4,301 miles from Philadelphia, Vienna's famous hall was the launch site for so much now-standard orchestral repertoire, from Brahms to Bruckner to Mahler, that it can't help but feel like a home, even to those who've never performed here before, among them young assistant conductor Lio Kuokman: "I've seen this many times on video and in pictures. And it's like walking into a cathedral, it's such a sacred place."
Yet as in most homes, one must know when to tread carefully. With an orchestra whose sound is as big as the Philadelphia Orchestra's, conductors as far back as Eugene Ormandy came to grief here for not holding everybody back. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin's solution: Play as if singing. "That takes the edge off the beginning of the phrase. The sound doesn't hit you in the face," he said. "If you sing a phrase, there's a beginning-and-end shape to which this hall reacts well."
The acoustic is his favorite. "The sound is glowing but remains so clear onstage - a miracle because, unlike many resonant halls, it doesn't go to the boomy side or confuse the timbres," he said. "Obviously, it's a violin-friendly hall, but it doesn't forgive you if you don't play well. And everything becomes chamber music."
Nothing is perfect. Even the great conductor Herbert von Karajan reportedly complained that the backstage men's room is so far from the dressing room. Musicians grouse about how uncomfortably cramped it is. The Philadelphia Orchestra jam-packed the modest stage. Again, Nézet-Séguin believes the hall has something to teach modern musicians.
"Most of the music we play was composed for people cramped and close to each other and maybe feeling each other more. So there's a beauty to it," he said.
Dominated by gold, the hall was supposed to resemble a Greek temple, though refracted through a Middle European sensibility that can seem incredibly strange to the un-indoctrinated eye. As in cathedrals, something catches the eye at every glance, whether disembodied goddesses floating through blue sky on the ceiling, the white nymphs who lounge over the doorways, or the many manifestations of winged creatures, some recognizable as birds, some not recognizable as anything. Among the busts of great musicians, Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann look remarkably alike.
The entrance lobby is full of full-length mirrors, apparently to accommodate the Viennese sense of self-presentation - another curious touch, considering that local fashion seems to be returning to leopard prints and polka dots.
And just because the public is among the most cultured on the planet doesn't mean the cellphones are under control. Despite a preconcert warning announcement, one woman pulled out her phone just as Lisa Batiashvili had begun the quiet, slow-burning opening movement of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1. Only eight rows from the stage, the phone kept beeping and burbling, its owner entranced by it and oblivious to those nearby shooting her daggers.
So the problem was addressed American-style: Yours truly reached over, took the phone out of her hand, and pocketed it until intermission. Another phone (unfortunately out of my reach) went off during Batiashvili's cadenza. Was it my imagination or did her playing grow increasingly angry? The music takes well to that emotion, and Shostakovich got the most uproarious applause of the night.
The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 performance was perhaps the strongest yet, and though received favorably, it did not get what it deserved. Maybe it was the sweltering weather. Neo-Greek temples aren't air-conditioned.