The New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna is a New Year’s tradition known throughout the world.
Attendees at Strathmore Music Center recently had the opportunity to enjoy an authentic recreation of a Vienna New Year’s Day concert, all without a passport or plane flight to the capital of Austria to experience one of Europe’s loveliest cities. The Strauss Symphony of America, conducted by Alistair Willis, presented “Salute to Vienna New Year’s Concert” at the Music Center at Strathmore on Dec. 29. This American incantation of the Viennese Neujahrskonzert opened with the Overture to “Die Fledermaus” by Johann Strauss, Jr. – very appropriate, given that this operetta has its associations with the New Year.
Thus began a concert both in the classical tradition and a bit outside of it, with flamboyant costumes, on-stage waltzing, and humorous “skits” by members of the Kiev Aniko Ballet of Ukraine. Maestro Willis is a highly entertaining conductor, at turns joking with the audience, leading audience members in a chorus of the New Year’s anthem “Auld Lang Syne,” and encouraging clapping along to the sounds and rhythm of the orchestra in an encore.
The international Willis – American-born, growing up in Moscow and Surrey in the U.K., and with an excellent accent when speaking German – consistently presented himself as a 19th century Viennese. He invites the audience to leave cell phones, cars and even electricity behind as he guided it through the history of composers from the famous musical Strauss family. Before playing the “Blue Danube Waltz” (obligatory for a Vienna New Year’s Concert!), Willis regaled the audience with many true stories, including how famous composers, when asked for autographs, would scribble musical notations from one of their famous pieces. The composer Brahms, however, wrote down the first few notes of the “Blue Danube” by the “Waltz King” Johann Strauss, Jr., and signed: “Unfortunately, not by Johannes Brahms.”
Above all, the New Year’s Concert in Vienna (and the salute to it at Strathmore and 23 other North American locations) is marked by the lilting strains of Viennese Waltzes. Yet a spirited version of Franz von Suppé’s Overture to “Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna” was also heard for the Strathmore performance.
We were reminded via selections by Hungarian composers Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán that Vienna is not only the capital of modern-day Austria but was once the imperial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austrian tenor Michael Heim sang and acted out “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” from Lehár’s operetta “The Merry Widow” (“Sounds like he’s going to a nightclub!” quipped Willis, referring to the fact that the song is about going to the famed Parisian restaurant Maxim’s). German soprano Peggy Steiner performed beautifully “Hör’ ich Zimbalklänge” from Lehár’s “Gypsy Love.”
Tenor Heim and Soprano Steiner complemented each other well in two duets, which they enacted from Kálmán’s operetta “Countess Maritza.” Heim and the orchestra departed from Viennese tradition briefly for a rousing version of the Spanish-language song “Granada” by the Mexican composer Agustín Lara.
As the “Salute to Vienna” tours Boston, Chicago, Toronto and other cities of North America, it should be noted that different selections, conductors and performers are employed, as the idea is to present a Vienna-style New Year’s concert in as many locations as possible in a time frame as close as possible to the new year. While musical director Willis noted that next year at Strathmore, the “Salute to Vienna New Year’s Concert” will be held on Jan. 3, 2021, perhaps one need not wait so long to hear Viennese waltzes and music in our region.
This point was made recently in “Champagne Toast!” by the local opera company Bel Cantanti. Here operatic selections, as well as staples of the American musical theatre, were presented along with selections from the Viennese tradition. Allan Palacios Chan, accompanied by Bel Cantanti’s founder and artistic director Katerina Souvorova on the piano, performed a moving “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles.” Chan also sang a beautifully plaintive “Song of the Vilja” from Lehár’s “The Merry Widow.”
Soprano Emily Casey and other cast members performed and sang the world-famous waltz melody from Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” while drinking from champagne glasses, of course! At points, the paintings “The Kiss” and “The Woman in Gold” by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt were projected in the background. It was the first production at Bel Cantanti Opera’s new performance location at BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown, and it was a resounding success.
Whether “waltzing in the New Year” with a “Salute to Vienna New Year’s Concert,” a local company skilled in Viennese repertoire such as Bel Cantanti, or PBS’ “From Vienna: The New Year’s Celebration 2020” on television, we wish all, as they say in Vienna, einen guten Rutsch – a “good slide” – into the New Year!