Musical Notes: New Year's Day Concert in Vienna

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New Year's Day Concert in Vienna

The annual New Year's Day Concert given by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra of music primarily by the composer-kings of the Viennese Waltz, the Strauss family, seems utterly timeless and yet it dates only from 1939 (or 1941 if you insist on being pedantic: the 1939 concert was given on New Year's Eve 1939, with a public dress rehearsal the previous day). For the fact that these concerts exist we must in no small part thank the great Austrian opera conductor Clemens Krauss, who championed the Strauss music at a time when it was seen quite differently from how we see it today. From that simple beginning, the concerts are now broadcast live to radio listeners and television viewers in more than 70 countries of the world.

The concerts take place in the magnificent location of the Großer Saal (also known from its rich gilded decoration as the Goldener Saal) of the Musikverein, the home of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Music Friends) in Vienna, Austria. Up to about 2,000 people can be accommodated, including about 300 standing positions. The acoustics of this famous concert hall, completed in 1870, are regarded as among the finest in the world. It is the home base of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a private orchestra founded by Otto Nicolai in 1842. The VPO draws its musicians exclusively from the Vienna State Opera orchestra. Players must serve a minimum of three years with the State Opera before being eligible to apply for membership of the Vienna Philharmonic Association.

Although the New Year's Day format was adopted in 1939, starting ten years earlier Clemens Krauss had conducted a series of five annual concerts of Strauss music in Salzburg. He then conducted all the Vienna New Year's Day concerts between their inception and his death in 1954, excepting the 1946 and 1947 concerts, the result of the two-year post-war ban on conducting imposed on Krauss by the Allies, when the baton was taken by Josef Krips.

Following Krauss's death, the conductorship was taken over by a man whose name will forever be synonymous with the Vienna New Year's Day concerts: Willi Boskovsky, the then leader (concertmaster) of the Vienna Philharmonic. He was to reign supreme on the podium at these concerts for the next 25 years, until ill-health forced his retirement in 1979. Lorin Maazel conducted between 1980 and 1986, after which the decision was taken for the orchestra to choose a conductor for each concert, although a number of them have made repeat appearances.

This year's concert was a particular pleasure for me as the conductor was one of the great maestros of the French school of music, Georges Prêtre. This was not his first New Year's Day concert (he conducted two years ago) but for reasons I have since forgotten I missed that particular concert. Now aged 85, Maestro Prêtre has conducted operas all over the world, including the famous performance of Tosca at London's Covent Garden in 1965 by Maria Callas. It was a joy to see him working so easily and so lightly with the orchestra, with the minimum of movement, yet maintaining eye contact with the musicians all the time.

There will be some purists who will criticise Prêtre's performance here for his free-and-easy approach to conducting and to score tempi, but that is to miss the point of the New Year's Day concerts. To be sure the music is taken seriously by musicians and audience alike, but the occasion is also a celebration of the beginning of a new year and the music-making is (and should be) full of relaxed fun and joyful exuberance.

Among those lucky enough to acquire seats at this year's concert, I spotted actor Sir Roger Moore and his wife Kristina, as you can well imagine enjoying good box seats.

The programme started as all good New Year's parties should, to the sound of three champagne corks popping (E–E sharp–F sharp), the opening chords of the overture to the operetta Die Fledermaus. Next on the programme was that musical novelty The Cuckoo Polka, with its various mechanical contraptions to imitate bird sounds including the eponymous cuckoo. A polka and the much loved waltz Wine, Women and Song followed before the popular musical joke, the Perpetuum mobile, a succession of 8-bar tunes which highlight almost all the instruments of the orchestra and would repeat ad infinitum were the conductor not to bring things to a halt. Just before the repeat, Prêtre wandered off the podium toward the side of the orchestra before pausing thoughtfully, then turning back to dismiss them with a wave of his hand. As is the tradition, he advised the audience Wunderbar, aber ist genug ('Wonderful, but it's enough').

Then came the homage to the founder of Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Otto Nicolai, with the overture to his operetta The Merry Wives of Windsor. More waltzes and polkas followed before we heard the overture to Jacques Offenbach's opera The Rhine Fairies. This opera had laid undisturbed and unheard for 138 years before it was restored for its first ever full performance in 2002. However not all its music was unfamiliar as Offenbach took extracts from it and reused them in his popular opera The Tales of Hoffmann. The overture played here resurfaced as the famous Barcarolle in Act II of Tales.

The final works in the main body of the concert were: a Quadrille by Eduard Strauss (the younger brother of Johann II) on tunes from Offenbach's operetta La belle Hélène, Strauss's waltz Morgenblätter, and a Champagne Galopp by Hans Christian Lumbye.

With few concerts are you able to predict so accurately the encore pieces. They are always a fast polka, followed by the quintessential Viennese waltz, The Beautiful Blue Danube and the Radetzky March (with audience participation) by the father of the Strauss musical dynasty. The Blue Danube was accompanied (for TV viewers) by glorious pictures of the river Danube from its source along its 2,340km journey to the sea.

Complete concert programme (all by Johann Strauss II, unless indicated otherwise):

  • Overture to Die Fledermaus
  • Polka: Im Krapfenwaldl (In Krapfen's wood, better known as the cuckoo polka)
  • Polka: Stürmisch in Lieb' und Tanz (Stormy in Love and Dance)
  • Waltz: Wein, Weib und Gesang (Wine, Women and Song)
  • Perpetuum mobile
  • Otto Nicolai: Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Waltz: Wiener Bonbons (Vienna bonbons)
  • Champagne Polka
  • Polka: Ein Herz, ein Sinn (One Heart, one Mind)
  • Johann Strauss I: Galopp The Carnival in Paris
  • Jacques Offenbach: Overture to The Rhine Fairies
  • Eduard Strauss: Quadrille Die schöne Helena
  • Waltz: Morgenblätter (Morning Papers)
  • Hans Christian Lumbye: Champagne Galopp
  • Encores: Polka: Auf der Jagd (At the Hunt); Waltz: An der schönen blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube); Johann Strauss I Radetzky March

If you fancy a trip to Vienna for the 2011 concert, to be conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, you'd better act quickly as registration for the ticket ballot closes on 23rd January. If you are lucky enough to be drawn, admission to the New Year's Day concert will cost you between €30 and €940.

Till next time, happy listening.

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