There are times when the orchestra's sound is so fine — indeed, flawless — that it takes the form of the otherworldly. That delicate sound just floats above the stage at the whim of the conductor's fingertips, its invisible ghostly resonance seemingly of a mysterious origin.
And as amazing as everything else can be, these rare moments of quiet orchestral perfection strike me hardest. They're moments I wish I could relive. Freeze-frame. Return at needed opportune times.
That's how I best remember the refined grace of the fabled Vienna Philharmonic on Thursday night in Costa Mesa at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Vienna's sold-out visit to O.C. — thanks to the Philharmonic Society of Orange County — was a rare one, having been the Austrian group's first local performance since 2002 and, before that, 1997.
The orchestra, which dates to 1842, is storied as one of the world's best. It's no wonder why: In addition to achieving seamless, balanced tonal quality among the various orchestral elements large and small, its sound is like none other.
They tune differently, and some of the players use different models from the standard orchestral fare (namely the French horns and oboes). It's a bit brighter sound than most orchestras, though of translucent, gorgeous clarity.
I suppose it reminds me of the morning air after a night's rain, after the countless tiny droplets leave the place fresher than it was before. It's a renewed bloom from the everyday norms.
Thursday's program was simple: Mahler's Symphony No. 6, aka the "Tragic" one, under the baton of guest conductor Semyon Bychkov. It's a longwinded piece, and occasionally bombastic, whose four movements total some 80 minutes — not exactly light listening material.
And after seeing two ladies in front of me fidget for an hour before leaving mid-concert, I wondered if a few ill-informed folks only heard "Vienna" and expected, nay assumed, lovely waltzes.
Still, even if everlasting Mahler isn't your thing, for the vast majority of the audience with patience and discerning ears, it was a rich indulgence to hear this fine group in our town and on our stage.
The transfixing andante (chosen by Bychkov this time as the Sixth's third movement, rather than the second) was alone worth the price of admission. Vienna's signature string sound — periodically accented by solo woodwind and horn — brought an ethereal spell upon the hall.
Yet Vienna's decibel highs were just as notable. From my vantage point, when the brass was unleashed — those nine horns, six trumpets, few trombones and tuba — it could push you back in your seat in the best way. But it was never so overbearing that it couldn't maintain that ideal balance among the symphonic competing forces.
After the Sixth's finale began at 9:09 p.m. and concluded at 9:40 p.m., the audience stood and clapped for some 10 minutes. Once that applause ended, the members of this mostly male orchestra — there were only six women — professionally shook hands with their neighbors in a self-congratulatory job well done — an act I wish I could see more of in other orchestras. Then a host of them of headed to nearby T.G.I. Friday's for that post-concert fill-up.
The expatriate in me wants to move to Vienna just to hear this group regularly. But the Viennese have a monopoly on that privilege, and even they can't even enough of their famed orchestra.
That's why the waiting list for weekend subscription tickets is 13 years.
It was casual Saturday for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director Gustavo Dudamel compared to Thursday's Vienna visit. Suits and ties replaced the bowtie-topped whites of two days before in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
Still, with the perfection of Vienna still fresh in memory (and a hard act to follow for anyone), Dudamel led a valiant effort in the program of Bruckner's Symphony No. 7.
That came after the lopsidedly short first half consisting of Webern's "Five Pieces for Orchestra" (a small-ensemble work of five movements that, altogether, total only 5 minutes) and Takemitsu's "Requiem for String Orchestra," which clocks in at about 10 minutes. A third piece to make the first half a bit longer compared to the lengthy second would have been a welcome touch.
The sold-out performance was L.A.'s annual Costa Mesa appearance and part of the Philharmonic Society's JapanOC series. It was also the first time in Orange County for the classical rock star Dudamel as music director of the L.A. Phil.
"Five Pieces," while interesting in the modern sense, demands such quiet stillness in a hall from the audience. Any outside noise like chair adjustments or coughs can easily be mistaken for notes — and they were.
Bruckner's symphony, like Mahler's, is a long listen. And while the L.A. Phil is a world-class, top-notch group, the orchestra didn't come off to me as too engaging until the third movement of Bruckner, though there was the very luscious string playing of the second movement.
Dudamel's famous conducting energy came out best late then, his 5-inch (or so) curly locks of hair waving about in the manner we remember from his promotional photographs. Dudamel's index finger could call upon the mighty brass, which played in fine form that Saturday.
L.A., though, sounded best when loud that day. They had the power but not the gentle caress I would have liked. Or maybe I'm just too sentimental.
BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.