Wednesday, January 3, 2018

2018 Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Eve Concert (Vienna Philharmonic, ORTF, PBS, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Monday, January 1 KPBS, the Public Broadcasting Service’s San Diego outlet, rang in the New Year with a predictable feature and a decidedly unpredictable one. The unpredictable one — which I’ll be writing about later because though I was never a fan of its subject, the time (late 1970’s) and place (San Francisco) where he made his mark is personal to me because I was living there then and just coming to grips with my sexuality — was a documentary on the Independent Lens series called The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. The predictable one was the American telecast of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s concert, which apparently actually starts at midnight so it can take place entirely within the new year (according to Wikipedia, they actually play the same program three days in a row — December 30 and 31, and January 1 — but it’s the last of the three that is internationally televised). 

The tradition was started in 1939 by conductor Clemens Krauss, and it was apparently greenlighted by Baldur von Schirach, one of the creeps on Adolf Hitler’s staff whom he made Gauleiter (“regional leader”) of Austria after he took it over in 1938. Like a lot of what goes on artistically in Vienna, the concert has become quite bound by tradition — indeed I remember that when PBS first started broadcasting them in the 1980’s Walter Cronkite was the MC and he kept going on and on and on about “traditional” this and “traditional” that it seemed to be awfully hidebound for what was supposedly a group of serious classical musicians letting their hair down and having fun. Of course, the concert’s greatest tradition is that it primarily features music by the Strauss family — father Johann Strauss, Sr.; his sons Johann, Jr. (by far the most famous member and the one we think of when we say “Strauss waltz”), Josef and Eduard; and his grandson Johann Strauss III, who to confuse the issue was not Johann, Jr.’s son but Eduard’s! I’m not sure whether we got to see the whole concert — I suspect not — because in previous years we’ve been able to download the entire concert from private sources, including extensive silent footage of Viennese landmarks the telecast’s producers, the Austrian broadcasting company ORTF, shoot so the editors in various countries can use it as B-roll. Now ORTF, the Vienna Philharmonic and their record label, Sony Classical, have put the concert on such tight copyright control — it is a major international cash cow for the orchestra and Sony, after all — that recordings of it are available for advance-order sale on even before the concert has taken place. 

What we got this year was 11 numbers, nine on the printed program plus the inevitable two encores — the “Blue Danube” waltz (here accompanied by aerial photographs of the actual Danube River — I remember being disappointed to read in the 1970’s that the Danube, far from being beautiful or blue, was then the most polluted river in Europe; fortunately it’s been cleaned up since then) and Johann Strauss, Sr.’s “Radetzky March,” to which the audience claps along in strict time and the conductor sometimes turns away from the orchestra and conducts the audience instead. (One year Charles turned to me as the audience was clapping in near-perfect unison and said, “How come we got all the white people who can’t clap?”) The “Blue Danube” is always presented the same way; the orchestra plays a few bars, the conductor stops them and says, in German, “The Vienna Philharmonic wants to wish you a … ” — and then the orchestra says, in unison, “Prosit Neujahr,” which is German for “Happy New Year.” Over the years the concert programs expanded to include light music by people other than the Strausses, including last night’s opener, the overture to Franz von Suppé’s operetta Boccaccio (it’s fun but there are other Suppé overtures, including Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry, which are better) and the “Stephanie” gavotte by Alphonse Czibulka (don’t hold me to that spelling). This year’s conductor was Riccardo Muti, who’s aged a great deal since he established his reputation as a young firebrand at La Scala in Milan in the 1970’s; he conducted the concert for the first time in 1993 and did so again in 1997, 2000 and 2004. 

PBS’s choice for an on-screen host was rather dubious; in years past it was Walter Cronkite and then Julie Andrews (whose most famous film, The Sound of Music, took place in Austria — but in Salzburg, not Vienna!), but this year it was the offensively booming Hugh Bonneville, an actor who joked about how the magnificent palace settings might make you think you were watching a PBS pledge-break marathon of Downton Abbey, a popular British series that is probably Bonneville’s best-known vehicle (though if you look him up on the first credit that comes up is for another show, Notting Hill). I’ve never watched Downton Abbey — I have about zero interest in shows glorifying the British aristocracy and either patronizing or ignoring the British 99 percenters who keep them in business — and if Hugh Bonneville’s announcements on the New Year’s concert are any indication, I haven’t missed much. He reminds me of the stories I’ve heard about how in the early days of sound filmmaking actors who had been trained on the stage boomed out their lines at fortissimo volume, as if they were still straining to make sure they were heard in the back rows, and they had to learn that acting before a camera and a microphone demanded a different, more naturalistic style of line delivery than acting before a live audience, especially a large one. Bonneville’s booming style made this show considerably less fun than it could have been, but the music was still excellent, and if the show seemed all too lovingly to use all that B-roll of the preposterously decorated palaces in which the Austro-Hungarian monarchs lived before the Great War (as World War I was called before there was a World War II) ended the empire and dispersed the royal family. 

At least the musical selections involved some of the lesser-known works of the “Waltz King” as well as such standards like “Tales from the Vienna Woods” (containing the beautiful solos for zither that are usually omitted in modern arrangements — and I had always thought the zither was strictly a plucked instrument but this show got its cameras close enough that you could tell it has a miniature keyboard as well), “Roses from the South” and the inevitable “Blue Danube,” including the “Myrtle Blossoms” waltz, the “Magic Bullets” quick polka (composed by Johann Strauss Söhn to commemorate one of the Austro-Hungarian ruling family’s many hunting trips — one family member kept a meticulous record of just how many animals he killed and one of those palaces has a solid wall of trophy heads), a “Festive March” that was simply attributed to “Johann Strauss” but which I suspect might be the work of the father rather than the son, and what was probably the most interesting piece on the program, a quadrille based on themes from Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera (which Muti recorded as a complete opera in London in 1975 with Plácido Domingo and Martina Arroyo — there are also live versions from 1972 and 1974 in Florence and 2001 at La Scala in Milan). There was also a charming piece by Josef Strauss (a composer a lot of critics think was more innovative and advanced than his far more famous brother), a polka called “Letters to the Editor” that was written in honor of Crown Prince Rudolf, the heir of the long-time Emperor Franz Josef, who was a reformer who would frequently write letters to the editors of Austrian papers urging that the empire lighten up and change to a style of government more suited to the 20th century. 

The Strauss oeuvre can be conducted as great music (especially in the records by Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Herbert von Karajan — Karajan led the New Year’s concert just once, in 1987, but he recorded what’s probably the most famous version of anything by Johann Strauss, Jr., the concert version of the “Blue Danube” heard in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey); in Muti’s hands it wasn’t as grand or sweeping as it can be but it was great fun, with Muti’s quick, snappy, Toscaninian approach suiting the music well enough even if it got the Vienna Philharmonic just a bit out of its comfort zone (which is probably why Muti wasn’t invited to conduct this concert until he’d already been a star for over 20 years!). Incidentally the listing for the advance-order CD on offers six pieces that were played before what we got to hear on the telecast — “Einzugsmarsch” and “Brautschau” from Johann Strauss, Jr.’s operetta The Gypsy Baron, “Wiener Fresken” by Josef Strauss, “Leichtes Blut” and “Marien-Walzer” by Johann Strauss, Jr. and a gallop by Johann, Jr. based on themes from Rossini’s William Tell — which ought to be interesting listening! (The CD does not include the final “Blue Danube” and “Radetzky March” traditional encores.)