Review: New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 2021 in the Musikverein, Vienna

In a Year Without Audiences, A Virtual Global Viewership Stands Up and Applauds

By Jonathan Spira on 2 January 2021
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Watching the annual Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day concert is an event steeped in tradition.  It’s the only televised event I can recall from growing up for which attendance was mandatory, regardless of the turn of events over the previous year.

Indeed, my father had never attended but he and I entered the lottery (which then gives the winners the right to purchase the, rather expensive but once-in-a-lifetime, tickets), and I actually won, bringing back to my parents pressed flowers from San Remo that I had left the Musikverein with (along with many of the other concertgoers, some with shopping bags full).

But what of the New Year’s concert in a year where the world, including my beloved city of Vienna where I spent a good portion of my childhood, is in turmoil, one induced by a virus that first reared its ugly head a little over a year ago and spread all too quickly across the globe.

The author, with flowers taken as a souvenir from an earlier Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Day concert

The year 2020 was supposed to be one of celebration, namely that of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, and it was the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Musikverein, the ensemble’s home.

What would a New Year’s concert without the elegantly dressed and highly coiffed audience look like and more importantly sound like?  This is an event where the world’s most prominent orchestra not only earns applause but where the audience participates in the concert. Little did those watching the 2020 concert know what was to transpire across the globe within a matter of weeks.

The year was 1848, a year rife with revolution.  Feldmarschall Johann Joseph Wenzel Anton Franz Karl Graf Radetzky von Radetzk had led the Austrian army in a victory against the Kingdom of Sardinia in the Battle of Custoza.

A training performance of the Spanische Hofreitschule, or Spanish Riding School, in Vienna

Returning to Vienna, Radetzky was honored by the citizenry and Johann Strauß Sr. wrote a march in his honor, Opus 228, the initial performance of which was to benefit wounded war veterans.

At the premiere, the soldiers in attendance loved the march so much that they began clapping during the performance and during an encore. This tradition has been handed down to audiences ever since, and it is traditional at the New Year’s Concert, where the Radetzkymarsch or Radetzky March is performed to clap along with the beat of the second repetitions of the chorus, which are performed louder than the first.

Anticipating this, the Vienna Philharmoniker invited its worldwide audience (the New Years Concert is viewed in over 90 countries including on networks such as the ORF, BBC, and PBS) to show their appreciation by uploading applause which will then be played during the concert through the Musikverein’s sound system.

A tractor hauling grapes through Rust, a city in the Burgenland on the western shore of the Neusiedlsee

The New Year’s concert is the most widely viewed event in classical music and was first broadcast on television in 1959.  For many years, it was hosted in the United States by television anchorman Walter Cronkite (who never quite learnt how to pronounce the word “Musikverein,” as my father would always note) and later by Julie Andrews, whodid pronounce the name of the hall correctly.

The 2021 concert was an unusual one, to say the least.

“Even inside the hotel there was on one around,” said Maestro Ricardo Muti at the Wiener Philharmonic’s press conference a few days before the program.  “You just have the feeling that you are inside a horror movie”

Indeed, it was not a given that the concert would be held, and Maestro Muti said that there had been “several discussions” about whether to perform or not.  The decision to hold the concert came, he said “because we just cannot abolish music and we just cannot abolish culture, even in pandemic situations.”  The performance was “a gift to the people.”

The maestro noted that it would be “strange to play music which is sometimes full of sadness, sometimes full of nostalgia and sometimes full of joy, inside an empty Golden Hall of the Wiener Musikverein without audience and people.”

The mostly Strauß program (the two opening numbers were Franz von Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant Overture” and Karl Komzák’s “ The Girls of Baden,” the latter making its New Year’s Day Concert debut) included the debut of the “Margherita Polka“by Josef Strauß and the “Venetian Galop” by Johann Strauß Sr.

In addition, members of the Wiener Philharmonic performed in small, socially-distanced groups on location in a variety of venues in the traditional film shown during the intermission, something the ensemble considers Austria’s greeting to the world

This year the film’s theme was “Happy Birthday, Burgenland! 1921-2021,” a tribute to Austria’s newest state.  The film, made over the summer with the participation of 33 members of the Wiener Philharmoniker, is not only a tribute to the Burgenland but tells the history of its creation, including the work of American geographer Major Lawrence Martin, who mapped out the border of German West Hungary.

Music by Franz Joseph Haydn including his Kaiserhymne, the anthem of the Austrian Empire, formally “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser,” or “God Save Kaiser Franz.”  Performances take place in the Haydn-Haus in Eisenstadt, in Schloß Esterházy and the Bergkirche, as well as in Schloß Tabor, at Neusiedlsee or Lake Neusiedl, and in Rust.

In performing the final two encores, which have been the same pieces every year since 1958, the maestro dispensed with several traditions Instead of beginning “An der schönen blauen Donau” and interrupting after the first bar with a New Year’s greeting, he took the microphone after the first encore, this year Johann Strauß Jr.’s ‘Furioso Polka,” and spoke to the tens of millions of viewers.

Stepping down from the podium for a moment, Muti spoke to the tens of millions of viewers worldwide: “We are playing this New Year’s concert in a very unusual situation,” he said.  “We know that we are playing for many million of people around the world, practically more than 90 different countries, but it’s very strange for us to play in such a beautiful, historical [sic]  hall, completely empty. But the orchestra played wonderfully, not only because they wanted to convey to you the message of music but because always the Wiener Philharmoniker are surrounded by the spirits of of Brahms, Brückner, Mahler, that are in this hall and many other composers and intepretes that in this hall made history.”

Despite an “annus horribilis,” he said, “we are still here, believing in a message of music.  Musicians have in their weapons flowers, not things that kill.  We bring joy, hope, peace, brotherhood, love, with capital L.”

Muti lamented the loss of “deep thinking” over the course of the past year, noting that one instead was “thinking all the time about health.”

“Health is the first most important thing, but also the health of the mind. And music helps”

The maestro concluded with a message to government leaders across the globe, telling them to “consider culture always as one of the primary elements to have a better society in the future.”

About to mount the podium to conduct the Blue Danube, he said he hoped “that [with] the waves of this beautiful music full of joy and sadness, life and death we can hope for a better year.”

Together, he and the musicians wished the world, “Prosit Neujahr.”

The final break in tradition, however, came with the final encore, always the “Radetzky-Marsch” (“Radetzky March”). Called by some “the Marseillaise of conservativism,” many Austrian families – including mine – hold it in a special place of honor, as much of an anthem as “God Bless America” is in the United States.  (Another unofficial Austrian anthem is “The Beautiful Blue Danube.”)

The maestro and the ensemble had one final message for the world.  The version of the “Radetzky March” we heard on Friday morning was performed without the snare drum intro and without the clapping of an audience along with the beat of the second repetitions of the chorus.  With no one seated in the Golden Hall, perhaps the maestro felt that any attempt to replicate the applause would ring hollow and, it was an appropriate comment on the past year, ending the performance with something so traditional yet so different.

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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