The Maestro Pays a Call on America

ANY visit to the United States by Herbert von Karajan is treated by most music lovers as a very special event. The three concerts he gave with the Vienna Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall in February were greeted as something like an unofficial farewell to the US. Though the maestro now walks to the podium on the arm of an orchestra member and sits on a special seat hidden in the podium, once he actually begins conducting, he seems no less vigorous than he was six seasons ago, during four Carnegie concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Tickets were priced higher than ever before this time - $100 top - and were, as usual, sold out.

On this visit, Bruckner's Eighth Symphony filled one evening, and Schubert's Eighth Symphony, ``Unfinished,'' and eight waltzes by various members of the Strauss family were offered twice.

Those who find Karajan worthy of his legendary status were mightily impressed with the concerts. For this reviewer, the real substance came in the Bruckner, which will remain for me one of the three or four greatest orchestral experiences of my concertgoing career.

It's not just that the sounds were incredibly beautiful, nor that Karajan has lived with the piece for so long that he understands its every nuance and knows exactly how the music must sound, must flow, must build. It's also that Karajan seems a different conductor in front of the Vienna than in front of his Berliners. With the Berliners, he is more of an autocrat; with the Vienna, he is a partner. He knows this orchestra will supply the sonic building blocks necessary for the work's architecture.

There was throughout this 84-minute performance, a sense of world-weariness to it all. This was an interpretation by a conductor who has struggled long and hard, over a great stretch of years, to attain usually impossible ideals. From that foundation, the performance kept climbing, through its terrifying visions of hell (first movement), its ghastly parodies of earthly dancing (the scherzo), and its failed attempts at finding heavenly peace (the adagio), on to Bruckner's powerful and blazing final statement of triumph and affirmation.

The Vienna was consistently called on to give its maximum effort to help Karajan express his vision of the work. At times the orchestra was unable to comply, which only added more drama, humanity - and, yes, frailty - to this altogether exceptional evening of mutual musicmaking.

If this visit should turn out to be Karajan's valedictory, it certainly made for as moving and glorious a farewell as any great artist could wish. -30-{et

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