“Salute to Vienna” offers a festive, gypsy-centered lineup

Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 11:55 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Franz Lehar

2013 arrived 33-and-1/2 hours early at Orchestra Hall, courtesy of the annual “Salute to Vienna” concert.

Attila and Marion Glatz have successfully capitalized on the international popularity of the Vienna Philharmonic’s traditional televised New Year’s Day concert, which offers a selection of festive Viennese bonbons. Now in its 18th season and presented in a dozen North American cities, the “Salute to Vienna” concerts may not always happen on New Year’s Day but their popularity is clearly not waning, judging by the packed madhouse in the lobby of Orchestra Hall Sunday afternoon and the response of the enthusiastic audience.

The success of these events is due largely, of course, to the eternal popularity of the polkas, waltzes, marches, and operetta excerpts that make up the programs. But the Glatz organization also ensures a consistent degree of quality control by booking conductors and soloists steeped in the Viennese tradition.

In addition to possessing impressive conductor hair, Klaus Arp brought a strong feel for the Viennese style, eliciting lively playing and leaning into the rhythms in idiomatic fashion. He was more variable as master of ceremonies with corny jokes and leering innuendo that too often came across as sexist and crass. (After the elegant soprano Monika Rebholz exited the stage, Arp observed, “Not bad, right?”)

Sunday’s local version of the “Strauss Symphony of America” is billed as being culled from the Chicago Philharmonic, though the dry corporate sound and fitfully shaky wind and brass playing suggested there were freelancers on stage that are not regular members of that ensemble. Still Arp and the orchestra delivered largely solid performances; the string playing proved the most reliable element Sunday with Florentina Ramniceanu of the Orion Ensemble, proving a skillful and stylish concertmaster.

This year’s Chicago program was centered on the “gypsy” theme, a popular motif for Viennese light composers. The afternoon opened with Johann Strauss Jr’s Overture to The Gypsy Baron with Arp’s rubato and lingering a bit generous even by Viennese standards.

These events artfully sprinkle some rarities among the chestnuts and it was the lesser-known works that received some of the best advocacy. Carl Otto Nicolai’s once-popular Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor has been shot out of the canon in recent decades, but it’s a delightful work. With rich string playing in the extended introduction and a delectable lilt to the waltz theme, Arp and the orchestra brought out the tuneful charm of this neglected music.

Other orchestral highlights included Victor Herbert’s exuberant “Champagne Galop” Royal Sec—a fine discovery—and Johann Strauss Jr’s piquant Neue Pizzicato Polka, a sequel to his better-known plucked showpiece, which received nimble advocacy from the strings.

The two vocal soloists, mercifully, sang sans microphones—not always a given even for these light classical concerts. Tenor Zrinko Soco was a vital presence, delivering a characterful aria from Franz Lehar’s Guiditta with clarion high C.

Soprano Rebholz displayed a big voice if with singing that stayed on the loud side and proved rather dry of tone. Still she was an energetic figure, offering a spirited rendering of the Czardas from Kalman’s Gypsy Princess and a slightly overdone “Mein Lippen, Sie kussen so heiss” from Giuditta.

Franz Lehar’s Land of Smiles was ahead of its time, centered on a pair of romances between Austrian and Chinese characters, each of which ends in bittersweet fashion. Soco delivered an ardent yet expressively nuanced rendering of the operetta’s greatest hit, “Dein its mein ganzes Herz,” and he and Rebholz teamed up for a touching rendition of the duet “Wer hat die Liebe uns inz Herz gesenkt?”

Six dancers from the Vienna Imperial Ballet provided graceful Terpsichorean interludes. The traditional encore of On the Beautiful Blue Danube sounded decidedly anodyne this year, lacking weight and gravitas. The singers’ bonus went better, a stylish and robust duet for Rebholz and Soco of “Tanzen möcht ich,” from Gypsy Princess.

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