Kicking off the New Year, Viennese style, at Symphony Center

Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 3:15 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Although only 1,700 people can actually attend in person at Vienna’s Musikverein, more than a billion people are said to tune in to the Vienna Philharmonic’s “Neujahrskonzert” concerts via television and radio.  The annual concert has been ringing in the New Year by spotlighting the music of the “Waltz King” Johann Strauss II and his contemporaries for 70 years now.

That tradition was successfully transplanted to North America by concert promoters Attila and Martin Glatz, who began by putting together a single sold-out Toronto “Salute to Vienna” concert 16 years ago, but the franchise has now mushroomed to 22 cities across the continent.

Symphony Center was still decked out with large festive holiday wreaths and garlands dotted with white miniature lights on Sunday afternoon, augmented by colorful flowers bordering the podium, a nice Viennese touch suggesting the spring that is to come.

Hungarian conductor Imre Kollár seemed determined to get in as many one-liners as waltzes: “I gave my first concert at 7” – long pause – “or was it 7:30?” But he managed to do so in such a droll and charming manner that it added to the spirit and fun of the day.

The players were dubbed “The Strauss Symphony of America featuring the Chicago Philharmonic” but the core was indeed the Philharmonic, which responded to Kollár with remarkable flexibility and buoyancy.

Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, which has come to emphasize everything that is idealized about Vienna, was featured prominently.  A spirited account of the Overture began the concert and Norwegian-born Viennese soprano Gustava Tjønn offered a vocally nuanced rendition of Adele’s aria Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande, complete with a fan for dramatic punctuation.  She was joined by Viennese tenor Neal von Ostern for a comedic yet tender account of the Watch Duet.

Von Ostern also offered two Lehár tenor chestnuts: a flirtatious Gem hab’ich die Frauen geküsset! from Paganini and Dein ist mein ganzes Herz from Das Land des Lächelns, where his high notes were weak.

Tjønn was also heard in Lehár’s Liebe, Du Himmel auf Erden, also from Paganini, and two duets with van Ostern from Kálmán’s Countess Maritza: Mein kieber Schatz and their best collaboration of the day, a spirited rendition of Einmal möcht ich wieder Tanzen as an encore duet.

There were no texts or translations provided, and the program misspelled some titles, but given how much German was being spoken Sunday among audience members, perhaps it was unnecessary.  The singing was amplified, sometimes discreetly, sometimes not so discreetly, when more sound could be heard coming out of the speakers than the singer’s mouths.

One of the innovative features of these concerts is the effective way in which vocal pieces alternate with instrumental pieces, which really does make for a more lively and contrasting program than the Vienna Philharmonic concerts, which are almost always purely instrumental.

Another wonderful addendum is the use of Austrian dancers — in this case six of them from Ballet St. Pölten — to actually waltz or polka while the music is being performed.  These are, after all, dance pieces, and seeing gifted dancers respond to the music with the appropriate movements in rhythm, really adds a great deal to experiencing these pieces.

In addition to transforming local players into a top-notch Viennese-style orchestra and offering comic relief, Kollár also proved adept at leading the audience. The conductor had them stomp their feet on cue to add resonance to the bass drum rolls in the Thunder and Lightening Polka, and even managed to get both hushed and frenzied clapping, in rhythm, during the obligatory Radetzky March encore.

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