Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Vienna Philharmonic 2018 New Year’s Eve Concert (ORF, TV Skyline, Vienna Philharmonic, PBS-TV, December 31, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched our “feature” for the evening: the PBS telecast of the Vienna Philharmonic’s fabled New Year’s Eve concert, devoted to the music of the Strauss waltz family in general and the most famous of them, Johann Strauss, Jr., in particular. The Strauss line began with the father, whose most famous composition, the “Radetzky March,” is always presented as the so-called “encore” at the end — with the audience invited to clap along (and one year they clapped in such impressive unison Charles joked, “How come America got all the white people who can’t clap?”), who had three sons, Johann, Jr., Josef and Eduard, all of whom became composers as well — and if that isn’t confusing enough, there was a Johann Strauss III, but he wasn’t Johann, Jr.’s son, he was Eduard’s! (There was also Richard Strauss, who wasn’t Austrian but German and wasn’t related to any of those other Strausses, but he wrote some killer waltzes of his own, notably for his opera Der Rosenkavalier.) The Vienna Philharmonic has been doing these New Year’s Eve concerts since Clemens Krauss conducted the first one in 1938, and when I first started watching them on PBS Walter Cronkite was the host and he would go on and on and on about how totally the programming of these concerts was determined by “tradition” — just about every other word out of his mouth was “traditional” this and “traditional” that. Later he was displaced as the host by Julie Andrews, whose big connection to Austria was having played Maria von Trapp in the film version of The Sound of Music — and even that was set in Salzburg, not Vienna. Today the host is British actor Hugh Bonneville, whose main qualification for the gig was that he achieved at least semi-stardom in the TV show Downton Abbey, which is set in an old, lavishly appointed Victorian-era mansion like many of the Austrian locales in this show. 

In previous years Charles and I were able to obtain grey-list downloads of the entire concert as the Austrian state-owned TV network ORF (their equivalent of the BBC) made it available to TV stations around the world, including not only the actual musical performances in the Vienna State Opera House but also the ballet sequences (which are pretty obviously pre-recorded and pre-filmed — in one ballet scene this year the dancers started on the balconies of the Opera House outdoors in daylight, and traversed the building until they ended up on stage — but neither the stage nor the seats for an audience were occupied) and the immense amount of B-roll they supply of various Austrian tourist attractions which networks licensing the telecast in other countries can use as they see fit, often (as PBS did) patching in their chosen host to gabble on and on and on about what we’re seeing. (I’ve complained about how too many live performances of classical music these days feature way too much of the musicians talking to the audience — I think they figure people raised on pop concerts expect this — and it’s even worse in a telecast than it is “live.”) One good thing Hugh Bonneville did was explain the structure of the Vienna Philharmonic and how it differs from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. The two comprise exactly the same people, but the Vienna Philharmonic is self-governing while the Vienna State Opera Orchestra is employed by, you guessed it, the Vienna State Opera. You win a place in the orchestra by auditioning for the people who run the Vienna State Opera, and once you’re approved you get to become a voting member of the Vienna Philharmonic, and the orchestra collectively decides on who its conductors will be and what music it will perform. It was also nice to see quite a few women in the ranks of the Vienna Philharmonic — for years it held out as the last bastion of all-maleness in the ranks of European symphony orchestras; it allowed a few women, usually harpists (a woman harpist was prominently featured in this concert), to perform as guest artists but it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the orchestra finally admitted its first fully equal female member. The New Year’s concerts can be pretty schmaltzy affairs — all that “tradition,” you know — but this one actually had a spine to it, mainly courtesy of the conductor, Christian Thielemann. Hugh Bonneville’s narration mentioned that he’s the regular conductor of the Dresden orchestra and also artistic director of the summer Salzburg Festival; it did not mention that he’s also the principal conductor and artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival. 

I’ve criticized him before for his stiff-upper-lip approach to the music of Wagner, the composer to whom the Bayreuth Festival is devoted almost exclusively (the only non-Wagner piece ever performed there is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece Wagner regarded as key to his own artistic aims because in the last movement of his last and greatest symphony, at least according to Wagner’s analysis, Beethoven had run against the limits of what instrumental music on its own could express and he was compelled to add poetry, and solo singers and a chorus to sing the words), but the stiff-upper-lipness I’ve complained about in Thielemann’s Wagner performances served him surprisingly well in a concert devoted mostly to the music of Johann Strauss, Jr. Of the 13 pieces on the PBS telecast (though I suspect more selections were performed at the actual concert), nine were written by Johann, Jr., one by Johann, Sr. (the obligatory “encore” of the “Radetzky March” at the very end), two by Josef, and only one by a non-Strauss: Jules Hellemsberger, Jr.’s “Entr’acte Waltz.” (Hellemsberger was a late 19th century Austrian composer whose two symphonies were recently rediscovered and recorded, and the Fanfare critic who reviewed the records noted how similar they sounded to Brahms and basically said, “Disappointed that Brahms only wrote four symphonies? Here’s two more that sound just like him!”) One thing Thielemann did that I liked was program quite a few pieces from Johann, Jr.’s stage works; he opened his concert with the overture from A Night in Venice and later played the “Bayadere (Quick Polka)” from an Arabian Nights pastiche called Indigo and the Forty Thieves Strauss, Jr. composed at the height of the craze for all things Middle Eastern sparked by the successful completion and opening of the Suez Canal. (One of the bits of tourist footage in this concert showed the entire room in the Austro-Hungarian imperial palace Crown Prince Rudolf decorated in antiquities looted from Egypt, though some of the wall paintings were reconstructions. As Boris Karloff’s character says in John L. Balderston’s script for the 1932 horror classic The Mummy, “We Egyptians are not permitted to dig up our ancient dead. That privilege is reserved for foreign museums.”) 

Thielemann also programmed two works from what he introduced as Johann Strauss, Jr.’s only full-fledged opera (as opposed to operetta), The Night Passman — a work I must confess I’ve never heard of before: the one Strauss, Jr. work that has at least a toehold in the standard operatic repertory is Die Fledermaus (literally “the flying mouse,” actually usually rendered in English as The Bat), an operetta which has the advantage of taking place on New Year’s Eve and therefore being a natural “fit” for the end of the year. The best thing about Thielemann’s performance at the Vienna New Year’s concert is he cut the sentimentality down to a minimum and took a tough, no-nonsense approach to these pieces. Earlier in the day we’d been to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, where civic organist emeritus Jared Jacobsen had performed his own arrangement of Fritz Kreisler’s violin encore “Caprice Viennois” and boasted that he would play it mit Schlag — it literally means “with whipped cream” and refers to the Viennese habit of putting whipped cream on their pastries, but it’s come to mean an overwrought, overdone approach to Viennese light music by the Strausses and others. Thielemann seemed to be going out of his way to play the Strauss oeuvre as much ohne Schlag as possible, much the way my two all-time favorite recordings of the “Blue Danube” waltz (its official name is “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” — “An der Schönen Blauen Donau” — and in the 1970’s there were a lot of articles noting the irony that at the time the Danube was the most heavily polluted river in Europe, though the river seems from the footage of it shown last night to have regained at least some of its Schönen and Blauen) — Leopold Stokowski’s with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 78 rpm era and Herbert von Karajan’s 1959 version with the Berlin Philharmonic (the latter being the one used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey) — drain it of all the accumulated sentiment and Schlag and as a result make it sound more beautiful, more noble and more fun. 

I also give Thielemann credit for programming some of the less obvious Strauss works — the only ones of Johann, Jr.’s chestnuts heard here were “Artist’s Life” (the chyron misplaced the apostrophe as “Artists’ Life” — more than one artist — though the German title, Kunstlerleben, literally means “Artist Life,” no possessive at all) and the obligatory next-to-last piece, the Blue Danube — during which the conductor is supposed to stop the orchestra after the first few bars (Thielemann did it after just one chord!) and proclaim, “The Vienna Philharmonic wants to wish all of you … ,” after which the orchestra is supposed to chant in unison, “Prosit Neujahr!” (In case you couldn’t guess, that’s “Happy New Year” in German.) I loved the two Josef Strauss pieces, “The Dancer (French Polka)” and what’s his best-known (or at least the least not well known) piece, “The Music of the Spheres.” Thlelemann also programmed Johann, Jr.’s own “Egyptian March,” a “polka-mazurka” called “In Praise of Women,” and a quick polka called “On the Double” that was Thielemann’s choice for the first of the three “encores” and the only one that’s the conductor’s choice and not dictated by tradition. Thielemann did not, as previous New Year’s conductors have, reach past Austria and Germany for material — one year one of the conductors played the opening to Offenbach’s operetta Rheinnixen, a sort of parody of Das Rheingold Offenbach, a German immigrant to France, did for his operetta audience in Paris — but his tough-minded approach added heft and sinew to music that can all too often be used as an excuse to grab the heart-strings and drown them in sugar.