By Paul E. Robinson
On Jan. 1, 2015, millions of TV viewers will binge on college football games. A much smaller number will embrace the annual New Year’s Concert from Vienna, featuring the legendary Vienna Philharmonic led by Zubin Mehta. But this latter group is by no means insignificant. The concert will be watched by more than 50 million people in 73 countries.
PBS stations throughout the United States will carry the concert on New Year’s Day. Check local listings for the broadcast time in your area. Within weeks of the broadcast Sony Classical will release the concert on DVD, CD and Blu-Ray Disc.
The New Year’s Concert was first broadcast on PBS in the U.S. in 1985. For previous PBS telecasts, beloved figures such as Walter Cronkite and, more recently, Julie Andrews have been engaged as hosts, and the program has become as much a travel guide to Vienna and its magnificent palaces and museums as a musical event. (Andrews returns as host this year.) It is an upbeat occasion combining architectural treasures, over-the-top floral arrangements on the stage of the Musikverein and music that’s as light as a feather.
The Vienna Philharmonic is a self-governing orchestra and chooses its own conductors. So it’s a great honor for any conductor to lead the VPO, and especially for the high-profile New Year’s Concert. The Indian-born Mehta, 78, has enjoyed a remarkable international career beginning with music directorships in Los Angeles and Montreal. He went on to head the New York Philharmonic and the Bavarian State Opera, and he is conductor-for-life of the Israel Philharmonic. Just prior to the upcoming New Year’s Concert he is leading concert performances of Bizet’s Carmen with Israel. Mehta has had a long association with the Vienna Philharmonic dating back to his student days in Vienna. This will be his fifth appearance as conductor of the New Year’s Concert, his most recent occurring in 2007.
Clemens Krauss was the first conductor of these concerts. It was he who came up with the idea and pushed for its implementation, and he led nearly all the annual celebrations from 1939 until 1954. Then came Willi Boskovsky who was concertmaster of the orchestra from 1939 until 1979 and led the New Year’s Concerts for 25 years. (Behind the enduring glitter and gemütlichkeit there is a shadowed past. It has been established that the concerts were originally conceived as a Nazi propaganda tool; more on this from a paper by Oliver Rathkolb on the orchestra’s website.)
With Boskovsky’s retirement Lorin Maazel led the concerts for seven years. After that, with the worldwide telecasts in full swing, the orchestra decided that it would engage a different well-known conductor every year. Herbert von Karajan was the first in 1987, just two years before his death, and then came Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber, Mehta, Riccardo Muti and many others.
The basis of the New Year’s Concert is the music of the Strauss family, primarily, Johann Strauss Jr. The concert features waltzes and polkas but always ends with the Blue Danube waltz and the Radetzky march. Occasionally, a conductor is allowed to toss in other 19th-century music that is similar in character, such as a Suppé overture, a waltz by Lanner, or, as in the forthcoming 2015 concert, a galop by “the Northern Strauss,” Danish composer Hans Christian Lumbye.
In addition to the appeal of the waltz melodies, New Year’s Concert audiences take great delight in the novelty pieces. The Strauss family composers wrote a lot of them. Perhaps the best-known is Feuerfest (Fireproof), which features two anvils in the percussion section. There are other pieces requiring guns of all sorts, train whistles, slapsticks and bird whistles. In many of the New Year Concerts VPO players ham it up with costumes and comic gestures. Even the conductors sometimes get into the act with whistles and funny hats.
Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899) was famous in his time as the leader of his own orchestra. He was known as “the Waltz King” and led the orchestra, violin in hand, mostly playing along with the first violins and taking solos from time to time. Boskovsky, a fine violinist himself, came the closest to emulating Strauss in leading the New Year’s Concerts, and he was much admired for his grace and elegance and command of the style. Lacking Willi Boskovsky’s skill as a violinist, later conductors were unable to copy — with the one exception of Lorin Maazel, who occasionally doubled as conductor and violinist for the New Year’s Concerts.
Live recordings of the New Year’s Concerts started in 1979, but many of Boskovsky’s concerts were filmed and released by Deutsche Grammophon. There are audio recordings of some of Clemens Krauss’ concerts from the period 1952-54. One of my favorite Boskovsky performances is from 1967. He plays a fine gypsy violin solo in the slow beginning of the Czardas from Strauss’ Ritter Pásmán, and then galvanizes his colleagues in the VPO in a rip-roaring account of the fast closing section.
Of the later concerts, I think the Karajan program from 1987 is almost unique. Karajan had a long history of conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and had recorded lots of Strauss with them, including a complete Die Fledermaus. But he had never conducted the New Year’s Concert. And due to serious illness in the fall of 1986, he had been unable to conduct for three months. He returned to the podium for the 1987 New Year’s Concert, and made it unforgettable. He loved this music and conducted it with respect. Waltzes like Josef Strauss’ Delirien or Johann Strauss’ Sphärenklange emerged in his hands as profound expressions of love and imagination. Strauss’ Voices of Spring waltz with soprano Kathleen Battle in her prime was beautiful beyond words.
Carlos Kleiber led the New Year’s Concert in 1989 and 1992. Like Karajan, he took this music very seriously and rehearsed it with painstaking care. Kleiber’s performances were not only meticulously prepared but elegant and sublime in their expression. Johann Strauss’ Stadt und Land from the 1992 concert was revealed to be a minor masterpiece in his hands. On the downside, Kleiber’s Feuerfest was absolutely humorless, and Vergnügungszug (Pleasure Train) wasn’t much better.
It is easy to mock the New Year’s Concerts for their hearty good humor, the rigidity of their traditions, and the shameless Viennese self-promotion. But I will be tuned to my local PBS station as I always do on New Year’s Day, and be transported to Vienna at its most magical: the palaces, the Musikverein and above all, the music. The music of the Strauss family endures because of its quality and because it speaks to the heart. And what can one say about the Vienna Philharmonic? It has a sound all its own and its musicians play with a joy that is good for the soul.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster, and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.