Monday, January 4, 2010

Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert (ORF, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided last night to run the 2010 “Neujahrskonzert” from Vienna which I’d downloaded from OperaShare — PBS had shown a version of this on Friday night but theirs, I knew from previous experience, would be laden down with narration (by Julie Andrews, whose only real connection with Austria was starring in the film The Sound of Music) and contain only portions of the concert, with a lot of jabber over them. Whoever uploaded this seemed to have got the direct feed from ORF 2, the Austrian TV channel which filmed it, since there was a blessed minimum of narration (in German) and between the two halves of the concert there was a 20-minute intermission feature called simply “Inside” (in English!) that had no narration at all: I suspect it was staged that way so stations in the various countries airing it could add commentary, as they chose, in their country’s native language.

The concert was conducted by Georges Prêtre, who in the early 1960’s was being touted as the Great Young Hope among Europe’s conductors and got to record with Maria Callas (her two albums of French opera arias and her 1964 “completes” of Carmen and Tosca) and others. Somehow he never got much traction from the critics but managed to have a decent career anyway — and here he was, ringing in 2010 with a bang at the traditional Vienna New Year’s Day concert. The concert is held in the Vienna Musikvereinsaal with enough flowers in the building to outfit 100 funerals, and tradition dictates (when Walter Cronkite hosted the annual PBS broadcasts of these concerts he described an institution almost literally drowning in traditional this and traditional that!) that most of the repertoire be from the Strauss family: founder Johann Strauss, Sr. (listed as “Johann Strauss Vater” on the credits and titles to distinguish him from his far more famous son) and his sons Johann, Jr. (who wrote most of the waltzes we think of as “Strauss”), Josef (who in some ways was a more advanced and interesting composer than his brother) and Eduard (generally considered the weakest of the three).

The only Josef work we got was the “Frauenherz” polka-mazurka (one of the most engaging pieces on the program, and surprisingly slow for a work supposedly based on dance rhythms) and the only Eduard piece was a quadrille based on themes from Offenbach’s opera Die schöne Helena, and while we actually got a piece from the Strauss father besides the “Radetzky March” that traditionally ends the concert (and to which the audience is always invited to clap along in time) — a charming gallop called “The Carnival in Paris,” interestingly the best pieces on the program were non-Strauss in origin: the overture to Otto Nicolai’s opera The Merry Wives of Windsor (Nicolai is part of the tradition because he founded the Vienna Philharmonic in 1842) and the overture to Offenbach’s opera Die Rheinnixen — apparently his comic-opera take on the Rhinemaidens the rest of us know best from Wagner’s Ring. The Rheinnixen overture sounded immediately familiar even though I’d never heard it before, because Offenbach recycled its beautiful first theme for the “Barcarolle” in The Tales of Hoffmann, and the piece was lovely and showed that light music can plumb greater depths than it did under the Strausses. (There was one other non-Strauss piece: the “Champagne Galop” by the Danish composer Hans Christian Lumbye.)

The picture quality was surprisingly good — I hadn’t expected this much from a data download that I hadn’t encoded to DVD format — and the camerawork was genuinely interesting; they tried to make it look like something other than a filmed concert, sometimes to great effect (especially the dance numbers, filmed as usual in other rooms of the hall than the one the orchestra is performing in — though I can’t help thinking the audience in the hall must feel short-changed — and the program, which was sponsored by Rolex, made a great to-do about the fact that the dancers’ costumes were designed by Valentino), sometimes rather dubiously — I’m still trying to make up my mind how I felt about them transforming the traditionally penultimate number, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” into a literal travelogue of the real Danube, tracing it from Switzerland through Germany, Austria, Hungary and finally to its delta in Romania. I have an interesting relationship with the “Blue Danube” because I remember hearing it through my childhood mostly in pop arrangements on 78 rpm recordings by dance bands — and when I got a two-sided Victor 78 of it played by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra I was literally blown away by hearing it played in Strauss’s original orchestration by a fabulous orchestra and a brilliant conductor.

Then I heard it as part of the soundtrack for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey in a version by an equally illustrious orchestra and conductor — the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan — and the music in Karajan’s hands (as in Stokowski’s) took on an epic sweep that made it worthy accompaniment for a beautifully staged sequence of a spaceship docking on a space station. Prêtre’s performance was hardly in the same league as Stokowski’s or Karajan’s, but it still managed to make a case for this piece as a beautiful composition and not just an infectious pop waltz — even in this peculiar context in which tradition (again!) dictates that the audience interrupt the opening violin trill with applause, giving the conductor an excuse to stop so he and the entire orchestra can bark out the greeting, “Prosit Neujahr!’ (that’s “Happy New Year” in German, in case you couldn’t guess), following which they “take it from the top” and play the piece start-to-finish. It was fun watching this concert — especially in complete form (rather than squished into an hour-and-a-half time slot the way PBS does) and without all the interstital jabber — though the completeness had its “down” side as well: it’s the sort of experience for which the phrase “too much of a good thing” was invented.

The succession of over two hours’ worth of light-music compositions, all (except for the Nicolai and Offenbach overtures) sounding pretty much like each other, gets a bit wearying after a while and one aches to hear something a little darker and moodier, just for the sake of contrast — reason enough that American orchestras are eschewing the Strauss-waltz tradition for their New Year’s concerts: last year the New York Philharmonic gave an all-French program that ended with Ravel’s Boléro, and this year they did an all-American program featuring Copland, Gershwin and Cole Porter — though they’d have been better advised to recruit a Broadway singer like Brian Stokes Mitchell for the Porter songs than Thomas Hampson, an opera and lieder star who wasn’t exactly at home in Porter’s idiom and who, like a lot of opera singers who go “slumming” in American pop songs, had virtually no clue how to sing the syncopated rhythms basic to this material. So I guess there’s something to be said for symphony orchestras on New Year’s sticking to light music in the vein they know well.