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Vienna's Spectacular Musikverein

Posted by Gregory W. Marsh on

I've been looking forward to going to Vienna for a long time now, so I was a little bit disappointed to find out that our entire trip to Vienna with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would be extremely short.  Our July 3, 2016 trip consisted of:

  • driving six hours from Munich
  • eating lunch
  • rehearsing for two hours
  • eating dinner
  • performing for two hours
  • and driving six hours back to Munich (arriving at our hotel at 4 o’clock in the morning). 

For a city that I have wanted to see for so many years, it was hard to accept that I wouldn’t get to see anything of Vienna but the inside of a concert hall.  But, 

Pictured: Me in my tuxedo just before the July 3 concert in Vienna.  Below: Vienna's Musikverein

But if I had it to do over again and could only pick one thing to do in Vienna, this concert would have been it!  Since I first heard my friend and mentor Walter Whipple talk about his time singing in Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, I have wanted to visit this hall. Last New Year, as I watched the Vienna Philharmonic performing their New Year’s Day concert in the Musikverein, I couldn’t believe that I would be performing there in 6 months. What a dream to not only see this beautiful hall, but to get to perform in it my first time there! I may not have seen much in Vienna, but it was worth 12 hours of driving just to sing there.

Stepping onto the stage, I had to pinch myself. This is a stage that Mahler and Brahms performed on. Brahms. The Brahms. On this stage? Really?

This beautiful hall is old. The wooden floors are creaky, the stairs feel ancient, and the stage is pockmarked and dented and scratched from hundreds and thousands and even tens of thousands of rehearsals and performances.

The hall, one of several in the Musikverein, is called the Goldener Saal or “Golden Hall,” and for good reason. Tall and stately, its walls are covered in golden pillars and beautiful woodwork. The ceiling is decorated with intricate carving and elaborate murals. The rich, deep colors of the carpets and the seats glow in the sunlight that streams through high-set windows. It’s a stunning thing to see.  I would share a lot more pictures of it here, but they don't allow picture taking inside the hall.  

The sound! Our conductor, Mack Wilberg, who is also a concert pianist, says that he tries to find old clunker pianos to practice on, so that when he sits down at a Steinway, it feels like glass. Compared with this Steinway of a hall, every other place I can remember ever performing in feels like an old clunker piano.

After cramming 400 performers onto a stage meant for half as many, and rehearsing for 2 hours (without air conditioning), we were given a break for dinner. As everyone else left the hall, I stayed and wandered to the back rows of seats, listening to one of the Tabernacle organists play “March on a Theme of Handel” on that magnificent organ.

4 things stood out to me from the concert itself:

  • Light. Unlike many other concert halls, the hall was not dark during the performance. The western windows were letting in the setting sun, and the whole golden hall was full of shimmering light. From the cellos’ first introductory note to the end of the dramatic first half, the light of the hall added to the magic of the music.
  • A young couple, sitting on the third or fourth row, sat through the whole concert entranced. From the way they were dressed, they seemed an unlikely pair to be attending a classical concert, but they clearly appreciated every minute of it. At the beginning of Come Thou Fount, a brilliant arrangement by Mack Wilberg of a beautiful American folk hymn, she whipped out her cell phone and started recording the performance. Her excitement about that particular piece really stood out to me. Nothing makes a performance quite as enjoyable as having an audience that you know enjoys your music.
  • The Stehplatz, or standing-room only section. A whole section at the back of the hall reserved just for standers. It’s more crowded than a sitting section, and costs less of course, but it amazes me that there are audiences who love classical music enough to stand through a 2-hour concert.
  • Caritas Austria. Toward the end of the concert, it was announced that all of the proceeds from the evening’s concert were being donated to Caritas Austria, a local charitable organization that focuses partly on refugee aid. Of all of the applause that I heard during this tour, that applause was the warmest, and perhaps the most meaningful. “This is a beautiful example of how performers and supporters of the arts can come together and combine efforts to do good in their communities.”

I really look forward to going back to Vienna sometime and enjoying a good, long, unhurried visit to a magical city. In the meantime, I am amazed that my first visit there got to be for such a beautiful concert in such a beautiful place.

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