Monday, January 2, 2017

Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert, 2016 (Vienna Philharmonic, ORF, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I stayed in last night and watched a four and one-half hour block of programming on KPBS, starting with the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Eve concert — or at least as much of it as American TV vouchsafes us, cut to an hour-and-a-half time slot (the full broadcast on Austria’s ORF public network can go up to 2 ½ hours, including all the “B”-roll ORF shoots so stations in other countries can fill out the program with documentary footage on Vienna and some of the locations associated with the music, including — this year — the Hermes Palace Emperor Franz Josef built for his wife, Empress Elizabeth, with its wall decorations based on the surviving ruins of Pompeii), with Julie Andrews as host (she succeeded Walter Cronkite when he passed) because she starred in The Sound of Music and therefore has an indelible connection with Austria in the minds of America’s mass audience (even though The Sound of Music takes place in Salzburg, not Vienna!). Well, it’s better than having Arnold Schwarzenegger (probably the world’s most famous Austrian since the death of Hitler) do it … Anyway, they seem to have truncated the concert by eliminating its entire first set and starting the show with the overture to Franz von Suppé’s operetta Pique-Dame (The Queen of Spades), a work I’ve never heard of and therefore I have no idea whether it’s based on the same Alexander Pushkin short story as Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same title; the Wikipedia page on the Suppé work says it’s “very loosely” based on Pushkin but delivers a synopsis — “The story concerns the tribulations of the young lovers, Emil, an impoverished composer, and Hedwig, the daughter of a wealthy widow. Hedwig is in turn pursued by her guardian, Fabian Muker, who is also in love with her [and her fortune]. Through the efforts of Judith, a fortune-teller and Emil’s foster mother, all ends happily with Emil and Hedwig able to marry, and Hedwig’s guardian revealed to be Emil’s uncle” — that doesn’t sound at all like Pushkin’s dark, cynical tale of a greedy gambler hounding an old woman to death for a supposedly foolproof system of winning at cards, which Tchaikovsky and his librettist, his brother Modest, adapted fairly faithfully.

That was followed by Carl Michael Ziehrer’s waltz “Right This Way” — Andrews’ narration mentioned that Ziehrer was the last court composer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the only one who wasn’t a blood Strauss — which served as accompaniment for a dance number by the Vienna State Ballet in which the women were dressed in fancy gowns of different colors while the men were all dressed in blue uniforms — “Why are the ladies dancing with the bellboys?” I joked — and then the concert, conducted by L.A. hotshot Gustavo Dudamel, went into what was by far its best number: the “Moon Chorus” from Vienna Philharmonic founder Otto Nicolai’s opera The Merry Wives of Windsor and representing a scene in which the townspeople of Windsor have disguised themselves as fairies and sprites in their attempts to fool Sir John Falstaff. The chorus was an absolutely gorgeous piece which makes me curious about the entire opera — Nicolai died tragically young and this was virtually his only major work as a composer, and it’s been largely overshadowed by Verdi’s opera Falstaff on the same story, but from this number it sounds like it would be well worth investigating. Anyway, this year’s Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert seemed even more skewed towards the Strauss family in general, and Johann Strauss, Jr. in particular, than usual: Johann, Jr. was represented by the “Pepita” polka, “Extravagant” waltz (used as background for “B”-roll of the Lipizzaner Stallions), a “quick polka” called “Let’s Dance” that was introduced at one of Empress Elizabeth’s big parties, a lovely and lesser known waltz called “A Thousand and One Nights,” a “quick polka” called “Tick-Tock” used as background for “B”-roll of the Vienna Clock Museum (having seen the large community clock that was installed in the late 1600’s in a big tower and remained until the 1850’s, when the tower itself, like the one in Pisa, started leaning and leaving the clock inside was no longer safe, the weird clock that figures so prominently in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel doesn’t seem so weird anymore), and of course the nominal “encore” of “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” as the next-to-last number.

I was amused when they got to the “Blue Danube” and Dudamel made hash of the famous introduction, “The Vienna Philharmonic wishes you a … ” pause to allow the audience to join in … “Prosit Neujahr!,” which means “Happy New Year!” It was obvious that, whatever languages he has besides English and his native Spanish (he’s a native of Venezuela and the world’s most prominent graduate of their music education program, “El Sistema”), German isn’t one of them and he’d learned the greeting phonetically. (Earlier there were some clips of him rehearsing the orchestra and alternating between English and Spanish-accented Italian.) The other pieces on the program were a polka called “Die Nasswalderin” by Johann, Jr.’s brother Josef (whom some critics consider the real talent of the Strauss family), another polka called “With Pleasure” by Johann, Jr.’s other brother Eduard (and to make things more confusing, there was a Johann Strauss III, but he wasn’t Johann, Jr.’s son — he was Eduard’s!), and two by Johann Strauss, Sr. — an “Indian Galop” and the traditionally mandated final piece, the “Radetzky March,” with the audience famously clapping in unison. Charles was so impressed by the clapping in unison he joked, “Why did the U.S. get all the white people who can’t clap?” The concert was fun, as usual, and Dudamel’s conducting was better than average — he may not quite make the “Blue Danube” as symphonic as my favorite conductors in the piece, Stokowski and Karajan (I’ll never forget how I was blown away as a kid when I first heard Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra 78 of “Blue Danube” and, after previously having heard it only in pop guise, was astonished at how beautiful and moving a piece it really is in Strauss’s original orchestration and at his original length), but he really got into the spirit of the piece (as other conductors who’ve tried it, including Andriss Nelsons and Georges Prêtre, haven’t) and struck the balance of lightness and underlying weight this music needs to work.