Monday, January 9, 2012

Vienna Philharmonic 2012 New Year's Concert (ORF, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert, which we’d seen a bit of on PBS New Year’s night in the American version — cut down from the over two-hour full length of the European broadcast from ORF (the legal name of Austria’s public radio and TV network — the initials stand for “Österreichischer Rundfunk,” “Österreich” being the actual German name of Austria and “Rundfunk” being the German word for “broadcasting”) to fit an hour and a half time slot and with an annoyingly chirpy narration by Julie Andrews — who seems to have got the job simply because her most famous movie, The Sound of Music, is set in Austria (but in Salzburg, not Vienna!). The version we watched last night was a download from France, so there was an added narration by a male, unseen on screen, in French — which got a bit annoying, especially for the numbers when there was no on-screen identification of the piece they were playing.

As usual, the concert was dedicated almost entirely to the music of the Strauss family: Johann Strauss, Sr. (referred to in the credits as “Johann Strauss, der Vater”) and his sons Johann Jr. (the Strauss, the famous one who wrote “The Blue Danube,” “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” “Artist’s Life,” et al.), Josef and Eduard. (There was even a Johann Strauss III, who also composed light music, but he wasn’t Johann, Jr.’s son: he was Eduard’s!) All told, three of the pieces were by Johann, Sr. (including the “Radetzky March,” the official march of the Austrian military, which always closes the program — the audience is invited to clap along in time and the conductor, Mariss Jansons, spent as much time during this number conducting the audience as conducting the musicians; Charles marveled at how a bunch of white Europeans can clap in unison to a piece of music, a skill which seems to elude white Americans!), seven by Johann, Jr. (including the “Blue Danube,” which is always the next-to-last piece on the program: the ritual is that the conductor plays the first few bars, then stops, then turns to the audience and says, “The Vienna Philharmonic wants to wish you a — ” and then the orchestra says in unison, “Prosit Neujahr!,” which means — as if you couldn’t guess — “Happy New Year!”), five by Josef, one by Eduard (though not based on themes original with him; it was a twisted sequence of themes from Bizet’s Carmen shoehorned into a quadrille rhythm), two by Johann, Jr. and Josef in collaboration and four by other people.

In some ways the non-Strauss pieces were among the best items on the program: they included a “Wiener Bürger” piece by Carl Michael Ziehrer, a “Danse Diabolique” by Joseph Hellmesberger, “Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop” by Danish composer Hans Christian Lumbye (whose last name is pronounced “Loom-BEE” — I’d always thought it was “Loom-BYE” but I was wrong) — for which the orchestra’s percussion section got to play with whistles, sandpaper, woodblocks and other accoutrements designed to duplicate the sound of an incoming train (much the same stuff as a radio effects department would have used to do an incoming train during the golden age of radio drama) while the video portion was actual footage of a Copenhagen steam train (most of the cut-in footage was pretty pointless but this was really charming!) and what was by far, musically, the best piece on the program: the panorama and waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. The Strauss family’s fare was effective light music — Johann, Jr.’s unquestioned gift for great tunes has been keeping their legend in business for over a century now — but they rather got shown up as only light-music composers by the inclusion of something by a real master like Tchaikovsky. (Some day I hope a conductor decides to do a really radical number on the Viennese waltz tradition and program Ravel’s “La Valse” — his grim satire on the whole Viennese waltz legend, written while Austria and France were on opposite sides in World War I — at one of these concerts. It would certainly sweep away some cobwebs!)

The conductor was Mariss Jansons, a Latvian-born conductor who came into the world in 1943 after his father and brother had been killed by the Nazis in the ghetto in Riga; since Latvia was annexed to the Soviet Union during the war, he had to come up through the Soviet musical bureaucracy (he was offered an assistant position by Herbert von Karajan in 1969, but the Soviet authorities made sure he never heard of the offer) and he didn’t definitively leave until 1979, when he was offered the directorship of the Oslo Philharmonic — curiously, his Wikipedia page says he and his second wife Irina now live in Saint Petersburg, but doesn’t specify whether that’s the one in Russia or in Florida! (He’s worked in the U.S. as well as Europe, so either is possible.) He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert once before, in 2006, and judging from his performance this year he seems competent enough without being a supreme master of the Viennese style — and he’s also a man with a surprisingly malevolent-looking face: at the start of one number he looked like the wolf about to eat Little Red Riding Hood and at the start of another I joked that he was saying to the musicians, “And if any one of you makes a mistake, I’ll eat you.” Also it was interesting that the concert featured as many polkas as it did waltzes — one doesn’t think of Vienna as having a great polka tradition, and indeed a Strauss family polka doesn’t sound much like “She’s Too Fat” and the other cornball songs that have given polkas a bad name together, but through the craftsmanship of the Strauss orchestrations one can hear the polka rhythms.

My favorite versions of “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” (to give it its full-length title) remain the Victor 78 by Ormandy and the Deutsche Grammophon LP version by Karajan (the latter the one that was used for the space-flight scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey); after hearing this piece for years chopped and channeled into a trivial bit of salon music, it was a revelation to hear these versions, in the original Johann Strauss, Jr. orchestration and at the full length he wrote, and hear that the piece is really a miniature tone poem in three-quarter time (and it’s hardly Johann Strauss, Jr.’s fault that in the 20th century the Danube — the “Donau,” to use its German name — ceased to be beautiful or blue and became one of the dirtiest, most polluted rivers on earth). Janssons’ version was good but hardly at the Ormandy or Karajan level (remember that Ormandy and Karajan came from the two leading states within the Austro-Hungarian empire — Karajan was Austrian and Ormandy, originally named Jenö Blau, was Hungarian!); he tended to take the fast parts too fast and the slow parts too slow — but the piece still made its effect even though the video portion was a rather banal ballet routine: I’d have much rather we stayed in the concert hall (the legendary Musikvereinsaal) and watched the Vienna Philharmonic play one of its trademark works! There was another ballet sequence elsewhere in the program with three men and three women, all of whom looked excessively nellie — I joked that the program director had probably told the queeniest (and cutest!) of the young men, the one with black hair in a pudding-bowl cut, “Can you at least make it look like you like girls?”

When I first started watching these concerts on TV — back when Walter Cronkite was still around to narrate the PBS versions — he went on and on and on about how tradition-bound the programming was and I wondered just how the people could stand performing such a concert when the rules were so specific about what they could or couldn’t play when — but I’ve come to enjoy and look forward to them as a New Year’s tradition and evidence that New Year’s music can be something a little more substantial than Guy Lombardo’s arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne” and an assortment of banal modern-day pop acts (for their 1993 New Year’s concert MTV presented Nirvana, but mostly the “rock” New Year’s shows go for the most trivial modern-day rock and pop music instead of the best), even though some of the New York Philharmonic’s New Year’s concerts have offered still more substantial fare (this year they did Bernstein and Gershwin, but I recall an especially beautiful show in which they did an all-French program and rang in the new year with a spectacular performance of Ravel’s “Bolero”!).