A Happy Viennese New Year

by Glenn on January 9, 2018

If the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols makes me wish I were English, the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert makes me ready to learn German and move to Austria.

I had to watch this year’s Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert in bits and pieces. I couldn’t find a complete stream that wasn’t blocked in The United States. And the ones I watched appear to have disappeared or are no longer available. About all that’s left is one of the encore pieces, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”

The opening of this concert was one of the most gentle and graceful that I remember. No overture to create drama, but a march, “Entrance March from the Operetta The Gypsy Baron,” which was more celebrative than militant, more elegant than triumphant. If it hasn’t been blocked, a low-rez version can be seen here.

There is an “always the same, never the same” feeling to this annual New Year’s Concert. Obviously, the waltz is the focal point, but sometimes there are some other things included to grab our attention.

For example, there may be a focus on a certain composer outside the Strauss family—for example, Tchaikovsky back in 2012.

That same year, kids were featured.

In 1987 (and at least one other year that I can’t recall), the Lipizzaner Stallions were included.

And there is ballet to accompany the dance music. In 2014, it seemed like the costumes for the ballet dancers were louder than the music.

This year it felt like the focus was on purity and simplicity. It was all about the music. When there were cut-aways to views of Vienna/Austria or to dancers, they accented but never overpowered the music.

The Vienna Philharmonic chooses who will be their conductor for these New Year’s concerts. Riccardo Muti made his fifth appearance this year after previously conducting in 1993, 1997, 2000, and 2004.

It would be great to watch a rehearsal to see how the conductor interacts with the music and the orchestra. How much has to be rehearsed? vs. How do you stay out of the way? How much does a conductor try to put a stamp on this music? It would also be interesting to hear musicians talk openly but respectfully about what it’s like to play for various conductors. Presumably, the conductors they choose are because they want to play for them. What is it about them that is so appealing as a performer?

With Mr. Muti, my sense is that he wants to shape the line and let the musicians take care of the rhythm. He is leading, but (wisely) allows the orchestra to play its way (because it will anyway?).

In an interview back in Chicago this past fall, Mr. Muti (who conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) spoke about his preparation for these concerts. I love what he had to say about the waltz:

“I can conduct a waltz, but I cannot dance a waltz. Sometime many years ago, my wife tried to convince me to, but then I was dancing on her feet, so she said, ‘That’s enough,’ and we stopped. But I find it very natural to conduct the waltz, but as pure music. The waltz is always in three: one, two, three; one, two, three. But the Viennese joke that the Viennese waltz is: one, two and maybe three; one, two and maybe three! There is a sort of hesitation or rubato that is not easy. You can try to imitate, but then it becomes a caricature of what for the Viennese is so, so natural. I’m sure I don’t have any Viennese blood, but on the other hand, as the Viennese used to say, ‘Who is a Viennese?’ A Viennese is a combination of Italian, Austrian, German, Czech, Hungarian, the former Yugoslavia, it is the combination, a melting pot of central Europe.

“What is important when you do the Viennese waltz is that you must feel that it is a combination of life and death. We must not forget that this music has a nostalgia, a melancholy, that comes from the period, that we are near the end of an empire. Not only do you feel this in the music of Bruckner, but the music of Mahler, and before that, in the music of the Strauss family: that something is about to disappear. And so it’s a combination of life and death, of smiles and tears together. That is the most difficult part of this kind of waltz. They are not full of joy. Maybe this is one of the reasons why on the first of January, this music enters into the homes of every county in the world and fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the New Year because there is a hope for the future that is coming, and yet a nostalgia for the past that is gone.”

I’ve always had a melancholy feeling about the waltzes, but I had never put words to it and certainly didn’t have that understanding.

The program is as much a Viennese travel brochure as it is a concert. Josef Strauss’ Wiener Fresken (Viennese Frescos), Waltz, op. 249 served as an occasion to show off the magnificent Austrian National Library in Hofburg. (Video no longer available.)

The video shown during the intermission is pure genius—this year it was a romantic story serving as an excuse for an architectural tour of Vienna, especially the creations of Otto Wagner, which provided an opportunity for underscoring by phenomenal instrumentalists from the Vienna Philharmonic. The whole thing is magnificent—beautiful and serene.

It’s sad that this part of the program is not part of the Great Performances presentation on PBS. For that matter, there is only a portion of the concert included with what we see here. I noticed the whole concert is on the BBC, but that, too, is not available here in the States.

The highlight for me this year was the playing of two instrumentalists. First, the harpist who got to shine in Myrthenblüten (Myrtle Blossoms), Waltz, op. 395.

Second was the zither player (is that zitherist?), who the program indicates was Barbara Laister-Ebner, who was featured in the waltz, Tales from the Vienna Woods, op. 325. She can be seen here, but I’m pretty sure this is someone with a video camera recording what is on television, without a tripod.

The only time I’ve heard the Vienna Philharmonic live was at the Hollywood Bowl more than thirty years ago (14 September 1987). I’m not sure that’s the place to actually “hear” them since there is the interpolation of sound reinforcement between their playing and our ears. Plus I’m not sure I knew anything then (based on how little I seem to know today), other than it was visually stunning to watch the violins move as a unit as they played.