Before the buds on tree-lined Maximilianstrasse have finished exploding with the new season's color, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra has christened spring with a series of stunning concerts here.
With the performances, devoted to Verdi and modern works by Stravinksy and Prokofiev, five-year music director Sergiu Celibidache has made significant steps toward his goal of stretching the tastes of this once conservative and staid orchestra city.
Excluding the Verdi (''La Forza del Destino'' overture), the three recent concerts - which included Stravinsky's Suite for Orchestra from ''Kiss of the Fairy'' and Prokofiev's Orchestra Suite from the ballet ''Romeo and Juliet'' - were wonderful examples of mature vibrancy developed by an accomplished conductor from a strikingly young ensemble. Packed audiences have given maestro and orchestra exhaustive ovations.
Nary a gray head graces the rows of percussionists, horns, and woodwinds, and there are precious few among the strings. Take some of these tanned, mustachioed faces out of their jet-black tuxedoes and you'd have what looks like a dapper platoon of conservatory graduates. The trend toward younger musicians has been set by the Romanian-born music director with an eye toward innovation and stirring the musical cobwebs that have kept the Munich ensemble in the shadow of the Berlin Philharmonic.
The sound produced by this orchestra can be uncommonly rich. The richness seems to come from Celibidache's understated podium style, which allows the musicians to interpret the scores more individually, thus adding more diversity to the tapestry of sound.
The conductor is avuncular, with a full mane of snow-white hair, and he signals his players with expressive eyes - as a view from the mezzanine makes clear.
The sound at first seems wonderfully dainty, yet more refined compared with major-city US orchestras. It is a less physical style of performing. The players are bunched tightly between the podium and a makeshift acoustic wall that directs sound across the majestic, mosaic-patterned, and rectangular hall. The cramped quarters make it look like the players hesitate to interpret too wildly at the sheer peril of annoying their neighboring musicians onstage.
There is no mistake, however, that when the musical scores call - as in the scherzo movements of the Stravinksy - these musicians deliver. The sound is wonderfully alive, always pushing the limits of the score until the venerable maestro reaches out and reins his players back in.
The strings are well coached, if slightly squeaky at high velocity. Brass and percussionists are stunning. If there is a major weakness, it is among the woodwinds, which seem lazy and slightly off key at times.
The Munich audience is one of serious concertgoers - no jeans or casual dress here as in other German cities and towns - which makes for an uncommon listening experience as well. They are so noticeably still and quiet that you can hear an oboe key squeak in the center balcony.
This second-time Munich visitor was reminded upon late arrival that no one enters the hall with his overcoat. All are checked. Not to worry, by the 8 o'clock starting time, nary a musician was on stage. Unlike in the United States , musicians enter ceremoniously together and remain standing until maestro Celibidache enters from the left.
He moves so benificently, with such regal slowness, that between numbers there's not enough time to leave the stage. He rather stands to one side while the musicians retune their instruments, then reascends the podium.
One of three regular performance halls for the Philharmonic in this city, this Kongress Hall of the Deutsches Museum rests on an island smack in the middle of the River Isar, on the south side of the city.
Wooden floors are old and creaky, but the red velvet seats are modern and comfortable. Spacious lamp-lit halls provide expansive views of the serpentine river that runs sleepily through Munich.
The end of a musical evening here is a lesson in gratitude. One recent 15 -minute ovation included Celibidache's acknowledgment of 15 soloists in the orchestra. Then he acknowledged each section successively, brass, woodwinds, strings, etc. The audience never slowed its applause and graciously vocalized its approval of each player in succession. Finally an usher appeared stage left with flowers for the maestro, one of which Celibidache immediately gave to the concertmaster. Another bunch of lilies was placed on the front of the stage by a young girl. Not to be the center of attention, Celibidache gave one to a cellist and then had the complete Philharmonic bow. Two more times. It was the perfect prelude to spring.