Thursday, January 2, 2014

Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Concert, 1/1/14 (ORF, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert — or at least the truncated version thereof telecast on PBS with Julie Andrews’ narration (her one qualification for the job seems to be that her most famous and successful movie, The Sound of Music, takes place in Austria), cut down from the 2- to 2 ½-hour length of the full concert to fit into an hour-and-a-half time slot, and with Andrews electronically punched in to various Viennese settings (including a 900-year-old winery run by a monastery — apparently it’s the only winemaking facility in continuous use) that gave us a travelogue-style tour of Vienna but interrupted the music. There were also the usual dance numbers in a palace off from the Musikvereinsaal, the big hall where the Vienna Philharmonic actually performs these concerts, featuring male-female couples in which, despite the long, flowing and ultra-feminine dresses the women wore, the women always seemed to be more butch than the men. In previous years we’ve got to watch downloads of the entire concert from European sources — not this year, though, as Deutsche Grammophon was not only planning to issue the concert on CD and DVD but was claiming a copyright in it even before it took place — and that’s revealed that the travelogue footage is supplied without narration and broadcasters in various countries can do with it pretty much whatever they like (presumably they have fact sheets so the narration can be written in whatever language is desired). As presented by PBS, the concert featured 12 selections, three by Johann Strauss, Jr. — the little-known overture to his operetta Waldmeister (it literally means “forest master” but apparently it’s actually the name of a plant) and the familiar “Tales from the Vienna Woods” and the “Blue Danube” — five by his brother Josef, sometimes called “the Schubert of the Strausses” because his music was more complicated than that of the rest of the family, it had a bittersweet quality and he died tragically young — along with one by Johann, Sr. (the “Radetzky March” that always ends the concert), one by Richard Strauss (not only no relation to the waltz-king Strausses but a German, not an Austrian), one by Josef Lanner (contemporary of Johann Strauss, Sr. and the man who, along with Strauss Sr., was responsible for developing the waltz from the Ländler, an Austrian folk dance, to an attraction in concert halls and high-class ballrooms) and one “ringer,” the “Pizzicato Polka” from French composer Leo Delibes’ ballet Sylvia. 

No doubt the actual program heard in the Musikvereinsaal was considerably longer, but as it stood the reputation Josef Strauss has among some of the critics of being the most musically sophisticated member of the family was supported by the works here, particularly the “Secret Attractions” waltz — which begins with a long, out-of-tempo introduction, richly chromatic and of such uncertain tonality that if I’d heard the work “blind” I’d have probably thought, “Oh, Wagner wrote a waltz.” When the waltz strains made their appearance (like a lot of Donna Summer’s records, “Secret Attractions” began with an out-of-tempo slow introduction that showed creativity and phrasing before the dance beat took over), one of them is strikingly like Richard Strauss’s “Ohne mich, ohne mich … Mit mir, mit mir … ” waltz for Baron Ochs in the tavern scene of Act II of Der Rosenkavalier. (“So Wagner wasn’t the only composer Richard Strauss ripped off!” Charles exclaimed when I pointed this out to him.) Another problem with last night’s concert was that it was conducted by Daniel Barenboim, whom I admire very deeply as a human being (he was born in Argentina, the child of a German Jewish couple who fled there to avoid the Holocaust — not realizing, of course, that many unrepentant Nazis would take the same trip after their side lost World War II — and he’s been conscientious about using his music to break down barriers, from leading the first concert in Israel’s history as an independent state to include music by Wagner to forming the West-East Divan Orchestra as a way of bringing Israelis and Arabs together to make music and serve as an example for peace) and am generally either infuriated or bored by as a conductor. I’ll never forget the PBS concert with the Chicago Symphony when Barenboim was its music director in which he took 50 minutes to perform Brahms’ First Symphony, about five minutes longer than the norm (I was trying to dub it to cassette and I kept running out of room!), which indicates his biggest problem as a conductor of Strauss as well: s-l-o-w tempi. At the New Year’s concert he was quite entertaining in the polkas, which have to be performed fast, but when he got to the waltzes he lingered, he fussed, he inserted Luftpausen (the German term for odd little stops in the music that the composer didn’t put there but conductors think add drama and power — sometimes they do, usually they don’t) and he took this music way too seriously.

Right now I’m listening to the Sony Classical CD of Carlos Kleiber conducting the 1989 New Year’s concert, and I’m hearing everything I missed from Barenboim last night: a conductor alive to the spirit of this music, who manages to make it sound intense and profound while also keeping it light and fun. (Ironically, Kleiber was also born in Argentina, the son of German expats who fled Hitler; Carlos’ dad, Erich Kleiber, was also a great conductor, and unlike Herr Barenboim he wasn’t a Jew — just a decent human being who saw what the Nazis were going to do and didn’t want to be around to facilitate it.) The Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concerts began in 1939 and were first led by Clemens Krauss (whose 1930’s recordings of Strauss waltzes have been reissued on Teldec and likewise show the kind of spirit and swing missing from Barenboim’s performances), who ironically was also the librettist for Richard Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio, whose “Moonlight Interlude” was performed as part of last night’s concert, and I remember watching PBS telecasts of these in the 1990’s when Walter Cronkite was the U.S. MC — and he used the word “tradition” and its derivatives so often in his commentary I wondered if the event had become so hidebound by its traditions it had long since ceased to be fun. Indeed, I’d love for once to see someone get invited to conduct the concert who would shake up all its old traditions, including programming other people’s pieces in three-four time, like Richard Rodgers’ “The Carousel Waltz” (especially if my hypothetical conductor gave it the vertiginous, no-holds-barred performance Alfred Newman gave it on the soundtrack of the 1956 film) and even Ravel’s La Valse, the bitter satire he wrote on the whole Viennese waltz culture while Austria and France were fighting on opposite sides in World War I.

This time around, PBS didn’t even respect all the traditions; one of the most hallowed of them is that when the conductor begins the “Blue Danube,” always played as the next-to-last selection, he’s supposed to stop at the opening bars, address the audience and announce that he and the Vienna Philharmonic want to wish them a … and then the orchestra members chant in unison, “Prosit Neujahr!,” which is “Happy New Year!” in German. Previous PBS versions of the concert have shown this, but this year the false introduction was cut and all we saw was the conductor turning to the audience, saying his spiel, then the orchestra chanting the new year’s greeting and the conductor turning back towards them to start the “Blue Danube.” Still, while not as joyous or infectious as this event can be, the 2014 New Year’s concert of the Vienna Philharmonic was fun to watch — and I was struck by the odd French horns the orchestra plays (and by the really cute guy who was playing one of them!); I’d read somewhere that the Vienna Philharmonic is the only orchestra in Europe still using the “natural F horn.” I had assumed that was a valveless instrument; it isn’t, but its valves are mounted atop the instrument and work on the piston principle, like trumpet valves, instead of the rotary valves of the normal French horn. It also looks smaller than the regular French horn, and though I didn’t see any of the players mute it during the concert I found myself wondering if there are actual mutes for it or the players have to mute it by essentially fisting it, the way you do with a normal French horn. I’d also read about the Vienna Philharmonic being the last major European orchestra to gender-integrate — there was a woman harpist in the ensemble last night (but then again harp has long been on the short list of instruments, like piano or violin, it was considered socially acceptable for a woman to play) and I thought I saw a woman somewhere in the string section of the orchestra itself, but it’s still almost exclusively a male crowd.