Salute to Vienna!

It is not very often that I get an opportunity to feel like a real violinist – playing with other full-time musicians or freelancers in actual concert halls for respectable money. Living little less than two hours north of New York City, it sometimes surprises me how few ensembles exist for professional musicians near where I live and work and, of those with active concert seasons, how low their expectations are. One notable exception is the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra in Ridgefield, CT which is comprised of part-time freelancers from as far away as New Haven and NYC – but even this orchestra regularly performs in a high school auditorium.

During this past holiday recess from school I had the pleasure of performing with the Strauss Symphony of America on their Salute to Vienna program. Founded almost 20 years ago by Attila Glatz Concert Productions, the Salute to Vienna New Year’s Concert is presented around the United States by musicians from the Philly POPS, Miami Symphony Orchestra, Austin Symphony Orchestra, and the San Diego Symphony. Our series was conducted by Andras Deak from Budapest and featured performances by soprano Sera Gosh and tenor Michael Heim of Vienna as well as the Ukrainian ballet troupe Kiev-Aniko Ballet.

Although the Vienna Philharmonic has found its way into the news in recent years due to its questionable hiring practices, stingy budgets, and Nazi connections, the Viennese New Year’s Concert is most often a happy and enjoyable event presented in many forms around the world. The live broadcast from Vienna on New Year’s Day reaches an estimated 50 million viewers in over 80 countries. Seats at the live performance on New Year’s Day can cost up to $1,300 per ticket. The Vienna Philharmonic’s concert always features music from the Strauss family and their contemporaries, and ours was no different. For our concerts, we played:

Kalman, Emmerich: Overture to Countess Maria

Kalman, Emmerich: “Heia in den Bergen,” from Gypsy Princess

Strauss Jr., Johann: Kuss Waltzes Op. 400

Lehar, Franz: “Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert!” from Giuditta

Strauss Jr., Johann: Banditen-Galopp Polka Op. 378

Strauss Jr., Johann: Rosen aus dem Suden Waltzes Op. 388

Strauss Jr., Johann: “Das eine kann ich nicht verzeih’n,” from Weiner Blut

Strauss Jr., Johann: Tik-Tak Polka Op. 365 on themes from Die Fledermaus

Lehar, Franz: Overture to Land of Smiles

Kalman, Emmerich: “Komm, Zigany,” from Countess Maritza

Strauss Jr., Johann: Hunt Polka Op. 373

Lehar, Franz: “Meine Lippen, sie kussen so heiss,” from Giuditta

Strauss, Josef: Spharenklange Waltzes Op. 235

Kalman, Emmerich: “Jaj Mamam Bruderherz” from Gypsy Princess

Strauss, Josef: One Sorgen Polka Op. 271

And, of course:

Strauss Jr, Johann: An der schonen blauen Donau, Op. 314

Traditional: Auld Lang Syne

Strauss Sr, Johann: Radetzky March, Op. 228

After two rushed rehearsals, we played our first concert for a relatively large crowd at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. I was surprised by the number of people in attendance, partly because this type of program does not really appeal to me, and partly because I felt that the Philly POPS’s loyal audience might have been all POPS-ed out since the Christmas concerts had only just finished. Our next concert was in New Brunswick, NJ at the State Theater – a pretty space that smelled like popcorn. This concert was in the early evening of New Year’s Eve, and the audience was enthusiastic and appreciative even before the confetti cannons were fired.

NYE Salute to Vienna

NYE State Theater Salute to Vienna

Our bus took the scenic route (76W…) to get to New York City on New Year’s Day for our concert in Avery Fisher Hall. I hadn’t played in Avery Fisher Hall since the time the Temple University Orchestra played there around 2008, and it very well might be the last time I play there since Lincoln Center bought out the naming rights earlier this year. It was nice to see our friend Stella from AIMS before the concert and also to perform for a sold-out crowd. We had one addition to our concert program at this venue: the third movement of a Haydn piano concerto performed by a young concerto competition winner. Since we hadn’t had any rehearsal with the soloist, we were all a bit surprised to see such a young child walk out on stage – and even more pleasantly surprised with how well he performed.

Avery Fisher Hall Salute to Vienna    Avery Fisher Stage Salute to Vienna

Less thrilling was our concert at the Scranton Cultural Center on Saturday, January 3rd. The icy, rainy weather made our 2+ hour drive feel even longer, and attendance was underwhelming. The building itself, a Masonic Temple, might have been beautiful in its heyday, but paint is peeling and the sound from stage seems to sit right with you and not project at all.

Luckily, we concluded our little eastern tour at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland. At one time, Strathmore might’ve resembled its Scottish name, but today the 19th century mansion is surrounded by highways and developments and a truly beautiful concert venue. The stage itself was much smaller than I expected it to be, and although the hall is celebrating its 10th anniversary, I was surprised that it smelled like recently-varnished wood. I tried not to be cranky for this performance – being the last one before I had to return to work the next day – but we arrived in the nick of time, it was hot onstage, and I couldn’t seem to ignore the 6-hour drive back to NY that I had to face at the conclusion of the concert. There were still mistakes, small transitions that weren’t together, little inconsistencies that never really worked themselves out, but I think we were well-received.

Strathmore Salute to Vienna    Lauren Ben Strathmore Salute to Vienna

What I found to be the most interesting were the audiences. We played the same program each day, in the same order, with the same people, and yet, the audiences reacted differently each time. In Philadelphia, they laughed and smiled and applauded appropriately. In New Jersey, they rustled and coughed and clapped enthusiastically. New York’s audience whistled and hollered less during their applause and sounded more genuine when laughing at the conductor’s about characters being caught in their infidelity. In Scranton, they tried to make up for all the empty seats by applauding often and laughing loudly. Finally, in Bethesda it seemed like some of the “jokes” hit closer to home and were met with only chuckles here and there. Bethesda’s audience probably did the best in their maintenance of a steady pulse during the Radetzky March, rivaled by the Scranton audience only because their smaller numbers kept them from slowing down as much. Maestro Deak added what I can only assume was a Hungarian twist to the clapping tradition as well as a molto ritard like I’ve never taken in that piece. Complaints aside, Radetzky is always fun to play.

Although Johann Strauss Jr. achieved the title of “Waltz King” in his lifetime after having composed over 400 waltzes, polkas, and other dance music, his father really should take credit for popularizing this type of music in Austrian society. The Viennese waltz evolved from a German folk dance in ¾ time called the Ländler and is one of the oldest current ballroom dances. Though you might not be able to identify a waltzer from a vals or a valse just by observing the rotations and steps, the musical style of a Viennese waltz is much more obvious. In most other waltzes, the “boom chick chick” or “1-2-3” accompaniment played by inner string voices and other instruments is usually evenly spaced, clicking along just like a metronome underneath the melodies. However, in the Viennese style, there is an anticipation of beat two (meaning, the second beat comes in a little sooner thus creating a bigger space in time between beat 2 and 3).

So why are these concerts so popular? Perhaps it is because of their diverse presentations with both orchestral, vocal, and ballet contributions, or perhaps it is because so many of these compositions have found their way into popular culture that the audience feels more familiar with the program than others they might hear during the rest of the season. It could also be, in part, due to the promotion of this music by entertainers like André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra. Because of its international popularity, you may be surprised to learn that the Vienna Philharmonic (founded in 1842) was not interested in associating with the “popular music” of the Strauss family until many years later, and even then their relationship developed gradually. Furthermore, the history of the New Year’s Concert is much more recent.

Winterhilfswerk (winter-hilfs-werk = “winter help work” for you lovers of the German language’s compound words) was an annual fundraiser by the National Socialist Party designed to provide food, coal, and clothing to poor Germans during the winter months. It was also an effective propaganda tool for the Nazi party, and in 1939, the Vienna Philharmonic participated in the fundraising effort by presenting a concert of popular music from the Strauss family. Cultural commissioners of the Nazi party saw this concert as a fantastic unifying event that could be broadcast throughout the Third Reich, and the concert was moved to New Year’s Day in 1941.

Just as the Strauss family’s Jewish ancestry was hushed up during wartime, the dark history of these New Year’s Concerts is also frequently ignored. Should old acquaintance be forgot?