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Classical Notes

My first Prom

Posted at 4:04 PM on September 8, 2005 by Brian Newhouse

Several people around the MPR building have an inspirational little poem tacked to their bulletin boards from one of the monks at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN. The piece is about perfectionism and how it can pretty much kill any good idea in its infancy. The poet reminds the reader of how lovely imperfect things are—for instance, the armless Venus de Milo. The poem has a fantastic last line: Remember, the Liberty Bell is cracked.

Tonight I heard my first Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall here in London, the Vienna Philharmonic led by Zubin Mehta. I've always hoped that, on my deathbed, I'll be able to say that I got to hear this, the world's greatest orchestra, play in its home hall, the golden Musikverein. This has been the orchestra I've always wanted to hear in concert—the group that Brahms had in his ear when he wrote his symphonies, that Mahler fought with and won over to his music, that thumbed its nose at Schubert's work when it was still in manuscript but now plays it as if these notes reside in the deepest weave of its DNA. Tonight was my first night to ever hear them live. The world's perfect orchestra.

Or not.

As they started the first piece, a late Haydn symphony, the horns were way out of tune with the strings and the effect was like biting into some fruit expecting it to be an orange that turned out to be a lemon. Mehta got them quickly on the same page and Haydn out of danger. In the next piece, they accompanied a fabulous Swedish soprano in three scenes from Berg's Wozzeck in a performance that was just about flawless. But after intermission, the crack in the bell opened again. The first bars of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring hold a famous high solo for bassoon—which came off perfectly, but when the horns came in again against that—ouch, tuning friends! Once again, Mehta put that behind him and the Orchestra dug deep to bring off a performance of The Rite that I'd never heard sound so savage.

By the end of the night, the audience of 6000 roared for more and we got two Strauss bonbons—and heard the perfect orchestra, imperfections and all, play them perfectly.