The annual Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s über-traditional New Year’s Concert is more popular than ever. Televised in over 90 countries to an estimated audience of 50 million people, one admittedly is dealing with a universal ‘hit’. Yet, this greatly loved tradition hides a dubious past.
The orchestra, founded in 1842, is recognized as one of the finest in the world. Indeed, it was so fine that ‘mere’ popular music, such as the waltzes composed by the father son duo of the Strauss family, now considered synonymous with Vienna, were not included in the orchestra’s repertoire until the 1920s.
The orchestra’s first ever New Year’s Concert took place in 1939, organized as a fundraiser by the National Socialist Party to help the needy in the winter. The concert had exclusively Strauss (Jr.) on the program and when it emerged that the family had some Jewish ancestry, the Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels ensured the news was hushed up. Or so the story goes.
In spite of being an invention under Austria’s Nazi regime, the concert has prevailed, grown in popularity, and thankfully in acceptance. In 1980, Lorin Maazel was not only the first non-Austrian to conduct the orchestra, but also a Jewish-American of Russian decent. The orchestra is still a conservative lot, largely consisting of well-groomed Caucasian men, though in recent years one may note a slight increase in appearance diversity and a trickle of female players. For the 2015 concert, we counted all of six female musicians and one male player of possible Asian decent, in addition to the Philharmonic Orchestra’s honorary conductor, Zubin Mehta, who is a Zoroastrian Parsi. There is hope!
The demand for concert tickets is so high that one must register a year in advance to participate in a draw for tickets for the following year. (Some seats are held for certain Austrian families, passed down from generation to generation.) Should one be lucky enough to win, one will still have to purse out a small fortune, 1000-1500 euros, in addition to agents and brokers fees for the honor to attend. In addition, come the new outfits. I am happy to say that Loden- coloured military outfits are virtually gone and we even noted a row of Japanese in Kimonos this year. For those who neither win, nor can afford the going price, one can do like millions of people around the planet – from Japan to Swaziland – watch it on the telly.
In my family, the New Year’s concert was as holy as Christmas and something one simply could not miss. I recall my parents sitting in front of the TV, drink in hand to cheer on Herbert von Karajan or others of their favourite conductors. As every year, they would complain about the outfits of the dancers (my dad, bless his soul, did not like men in tights…) ohh and ahh at the flower arrangements and hum and clap along with the orchestra to the utter embarrassment of their offspring. And, as my husband and I crawled up on our couch to watch the 2015 concert, I noticed myself purring along with Strauss’ waltzes and clapping along with the Radetzky March, carefully following Mehta’s baton not to do a faux pas. Had the program been a thirty minutes longer, we would have nicknamed all the musicians. Heaven forbid, I am turning into my parents, lamenting about why the legendary Julie Andrews is no longer doing the BBC commentary and kvetching about not enough ballet inserts – just like my old folks…
Happy New Year to all. May it be a year of Peace, Love, and Understanding.