Will anyone notice New Year’s Day now the concert’s been tamed?

There used to be a bit of a blood-pressure rise as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra prepared to usher in the New Year with one woman on stage, maybe two, and a dinosaur conductor who made anachronistic advance comments.

All gone.

The orchestra these days has a dozen women in its ranks and this year’s conductor is Christian Thielemann who has learned never to say anything remotely controversial.

So are we on the edge of our seats?

You tell me.

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  • Yawn. Haven’t seen the concerts since Georges Prêtre’s years ago, which was good. They should just play the old Willi Boskovsky tapes every year. Alternate these with the Karajan 88′ and Kleiber’s pair of concerts every once in awhile.

  • we all will be on the edge of our seats, for sure ! a great orchestra and finally a real conductor again. Christian Thielemann is one of the very few conductors worldwide on the highest level. He really has sthg to say. so finally it works (they asked him already some years ago, but he had contracts in Dresden – 2019 was the first year possible).

    • He is ok, very good in something(s) and not so good in other things. It’s not his fault, the ‘Germanophilic’ fraction focused on him as their new messiah, after Karajan left such a painful void. They needed someone. Those shoes are quite too big for him though, which – again – says nothing against him.

      • i m not interested in any political statement. he is among the 5, 6 really great conductors of our times. Muti is the most important italian conductor, Thielemann is definitely the most important German conductor – and for the german repertoire. that s why he is famous.

        • ah well. maybe the unwashed masses need these categories. “most important italian conductor”, “mot important German conductor”…
          means what? nothing. but people believe a lot of things, this is harmless in comparison.
          At the end of the day, at the end of the music, we must remember, that conductors are only messengers. Don’t kill the messenger they say, but don’t commit idolatry either. It’s an honorary profession, but not a status of holiness…

          • it means that – from my point of view as a professional musician – Thielemann is the most important e.g. best, professional, interesting conductor these days in Germany as well as Muti is in Italy. this is not about idolatry but instead about respect and open mind for their effort. it is the opposite of idolatry since – instead of you – i speak about art , quality of performance and so on. i would never think of people as unwashed masses – this is rassistic and arrogant. most of the listeners are intelligent and able to have their own opinion. besides journalists. and as you might have seen and heard it was an exceptional concert.

          • apart from the selfish nonsense of your message – we are speaking about style, not about nations or politics: there is (or was) a german style, an italian style and so on..

  • Always watch, it’s a family tradition and a great way to show young children that music is fun and introduces them to a symphony orchestra and ballet. It’s a win win!

      • Well, I try to help. But seriously, you get more women in, and a conductor who will be a credit to the music while not saying anything crazy, and you grumble? Thieleman will give it all more welly and idiomatic schwung, I suspect. Some will still be unhappy that a so-called conservative is in charge and looking like he is a) smashing it and b) enjoying it.

      • Well, I try to help. Thieleman will give it all more welly and idiomatic schwung, I suspect. Some will still be unhappy that a so-called conservative is in charge and looking like he is a) smashing it and b) enjoying it.

  • Well, if you absolutely have to have controversy, an orchestra that’s still 90% male conducted by a sort of CGI zombie Karajan with a history of extremely dubious political statements and a suspiciously limited repertoire should surely provide that?

    Alternatively you could just enjoy the music…

    • ‘A history of extremely dubious political statements’; care to expand on this?

      From what I can gather, all Herr Thielemann has said is that ‘we should listen to the Pegida demonstrators’. By that he appeared to mean that in a democratic state, politicians should take the sentiment of the people into consideration and not deliberately block out large sections of the populace like they have done in Sweden (which is still without a government 3 months after its general election as no one wants to collaborate or even accept the indirect support of the Sweden Democrats despite that party receiving 17% in the polls and nearly becoming the second largest political party in Sweden).

      If we create a climate in which no one outside of the political sphere dares to utter anything remotely political because people like yourself fail to understand nuance then we Europeans have done ourselves a major disfavor.

      • Well, the Swedes who voted for the parties with ideas
        Differing from those of the Sweden Democrats (third biggest party still) don’t ask for nationalistic, and anti-liberal reforms, so these other parties serve their voters well by not giving the SD influence via collaboration. The key here is that the political parties each has a different agenda. It shall be said that it is a party that is fundamentally different from all others in the Swedish Parliament.

        • Parties who win votes for a programme that wants to underminde the constitutional state and cultivates ideas which go against the European idea of civilization, like the German AfD, don’t belong in a European democracy, in spite of democratically chosen, and are rightly isolated.

      • Just google him. There are many comments which are borderline at best and right wing extremism at worst. But he has always been quite careful not to cross any lines. There is also his championship of Pfitzner’s music, including pieces which have a clear political untertone.

        For years I’ve had a weird feeling whenever Thielemann comments on something outside of music or even on some connections of music and German history. And while he does not come out directly and urges people to vote AfD, one might conclude from the gist of his comments that he would not object to it. But I have to admit that he is careful and that he has the ability to play with ambiguity.

        • Yes, he should consult you before making any public statements – to check his privilege and make sure his statements conform to the politburo’s ideologies. Anyone who is not of the Left these days is labelled ‘extreme right wing’, ‘alt right’, ‘white supremicist’ etc. Reputational destruction, name-calling and abuse is all the Left really has. Zombie followers, aside.

          Christian Thielemann comes from a conservative white (shock, horror) family from ‘behind the iron curtain’. Why the heck he doesn’t comply with American urban, progressive social values absolutely amazes me!!

        • It’s the antlers on the wall in his house and his beer drinking which make people suspicious. Fortunately nobody knows about his saturday night dance binges in lederhosen.

      • Bravo. Great comment. The people have been inflicted with ‘cultural enrichment’ without their say so. There were always going to be consequences. And, like us, they’ve probably got ‘diversity bollards’ erected too.

    • I trust you’re philosophically opposed to Maestro Thielemann and will not listen or watch. It would be totally hypocritical for you to do so.

  • Eternal edge of my seat moments:

    1) How much will the conductor ham it up conducting the audience during the Radetzky March? (It is always cringe worthy)

    2) How seriously will the conductor begin the Blue Danube pretending he doesn’t know the audience will start applauding? (another eye-rolling moment)

    3) How badly will the conductor mangle the German in his New Year’s Day wish? (the native German speakers go the complete opposite direction, giving a whole speech about world peace. I expect nothing less from Thielemann! )

    Other things I like to do:

    1) Count the number of women in Japanese kimonos. (why??? do the Austrians wear lederhosen?)

    • Strange things are important to strange people. I’m looking forward to music and musicians; unfashionable, I know. I should be counting nationality, gender, height and a range of non-musical consideration. But I won’t as I’m not a crypto soviet apparatchik. With storm-troopers waiting in the wings to measure compliance. Next they’ll be attaching compliance plates to symphony orchestras. Dear me; where have I heard that before (puts finger to temple)?

  • An overview of the history of the New Years Concerts might be useful. (I wrote most of this years ago and provide here an adapted version.) For the first 21 years of the post war Austrian Republic (1955-79) the concerts were led by the Philharmonic’s concert master, Willi Boskovsky. He sometimes even led as a _Stehgeiger_, which is perhaps the most authentic way to do Strauss Waltzes.

    Under Boskovsky’s leadership, the concerts had a very authentic character, but by the mid 80s they had developed an enormous international following, eventually reaching an audience of about 50 million in 72 countries. (Its now 81 countries.) The royalties became a windfall for the musicians. After Boskovsky retired in 1979, Lorin Maazel conducted the next six concerts. The musicians then voted to rotate star conductors to further increase the marketability of the concerts – even though many of the conductors did not have an understanding of the style that even remotely approached Boskovsky’s. In some of the performances since then, one can even see that the orchestra often all but ignores the conductors (though of course the orchestra denies this.)

    With such a large international audience, the concerts also gradually became something like an act of state for the Austrian Republic. The light heartedness and _Gelassenheit_ (an untranslatable German word that means something like relaxed ease) that should characterize the waltzes, was at least partially lost as the concerts came to be viewed as a money-making apparatus.

    This Youtube video of the Philharmonic performing the “Spanish March” under Boskovsky in 1963 shows what the authentic style was like:

    HYPERLINK http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTGqx7g-6wM http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTGqx7g-6wM

    Note the poor intonation, the imprecision of Austrian _Gelassenheit_, the silliness of the castanet player putting on a Spanish costume, and the light-hearted sense of entertainment. Note also how the rhythmic nuances and elegant phrasing that characterizes the Viennese style were much more apparent back then. One can see that what we hear today, and which is proclaimed as authentic, is quite different. Some of the old style remains, but some has been lost.

    The history of the Philharmonic’s New Years Concerts might be divided into five periods:

    1. 1939-45. Austria had become part of Germany through the Anschluss. To weaken any sense of Austrian nationalism, the National Socialists planned to reduce Vienna to provincial status and make Hitler’s hometown, Linz, the new cultural capitol of the region. During this era, expressions of Austrian cultural nationalism through the Vienna Philharmonic were strongly suppressed – and perhaps even dangerous. Clemens Krauss conducted all of the New Years concerts during this era (1939, 1941-45.) The series was initiated to bring ease to the city during the time war. (I’m not at all certain, but I don’t think there was a concert in 1940. Perhaps someone can let us know.) Krauss had become Director of the Vienna State Opera in 1929, and Music Director of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1930. He developed close relations with the Nazi Party. In 1935, Krauss replaced Erich Kleiber as conductor of the Berlin State Opera after Kleiber resigned in protest against National Socialism. Krauss’s close association with the National Socialists probably helps explain, at least in part, why he led all (or all but one) of the concerts during this period. Through associations with Krauss and the initiation of the New Years Concert as part of a propaganda apparatus, some in Austria still associate the event as stemming from a Nazi past, even if the concerts now have an entirely different character and purpose.

    2. 1945-55. Austria as an allied protectorate. This era is interesting because efforts were made to reestablish Austria’s autonomous political and cultural identity. In 1946 and 1947 the concerts were led by Joseph Krips who was also Viennese, but in 1938 he had to flee the country because his father was Jewish. His return to conduct the New Years concerts illustrates the changes that the Allies were trying to establish – a conductor with a Jewish heritage replacing a Nazi collaborator. It is thus interesting that from 1948-54 Clemens Krauss once again conducted the concerts, in spite of his strong associations with the National Socialists. This was another manifestation of the lax de-Nazification process that surrounded the Vienna Philharmonic.

    3. 1955-79. The Willi Boskovsky era. As mentioned, he was a concert master of the orchestra and was already known for his work as a Stehgeiger who led Strauss waltzes. My sense is not that he was appointed for reasons of cultural nationalism or political affiliation. It was more that these were “Sonderkonzerten” oriented around “Unterhaltungsmusik.” The occasion was seen as informal and festive, and so it was thought appropriate that a concertmaster who specialized in waltzes could lead them. By the end of Boskovsky’s tenure the concerts had begun to reach large international audiences. They became an important source of income for the musicians, and an important tool for promoting Austria and its tourism. The marketing apparatus surrounding the concerts eventually evolved toward promoting them as something deeply and uniquely Austrian.

    4. 1980-86. The Maazel years. He was selected as a replacement for Boskovsky, even though he did not have a particular connection to Viennese culture – nothing remotely similar to Krauss, Krips, and Boskovsky. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Mr. Maazel is also Jewish. He had worked for years in the German-speaking world and was well-known and respected. The issue seemed to be to find a famous conductor who would serve as a good marketing image for the recordings. Concerns about Austrian cultural authenticity and ethnicity were secondary.

    5. 1987 to the present. The era of rotating conductors. The concerts had begun to reach about 50 million viewers in 81 countries, and had become a considerable source of income for the musicians. They voted to rotate conductors because it would allow them to market the recordings of each year’s concert as a completely new product. Concerns about cultural authenticity were largely abandoned. And even the racial image was varied with conductors like Seiji Ozawa who led the concert once and Zubin Mehta four times. The orchestra, however, continued to not have any fully Asian members, a notable and troubling discrepancy for several reasons.

    We thus see that there were radical variations in issues regarding Austrian cultural identity that ranged from its strong suppression to its promotion as something inherently and uniquely Austrian to the later period that is more cosmopolitan, at least in terms of conductors. We also see that this was shaped by the extreme circumstance of Austria literally having to reinvent itself as a nation. These issues were part of a very complex Gestalt that created the orchestra’s discrete racial ideologies – though the locus of the history is probably centered more in 19th century, Romantic cultural nationalism than in the war and post-war eras. (For more about the racial ideologies see: “http://www.osborne-conant.org/purity.htm”

    I put my post up about the history of the New Years Concert knowing that my comments will likely be intentionally misappropriated and used for the sorts of reactions that have come to characterize these discussions here on SD. Perhaps one value they have is that discerning readers can see actual examples of the problems that still exist in Germany and Austria when dealing with their history.

    On one hand, Germans and Austrians face stereo-typing that causes them harm and which they rightfully resent. And on the other, the issues of the Second World War and the Reich are still very difficult for those on all sides to objectively process. The horrors were so great, and the scars do enduring that we can hardly expect anything else. And there are those on in Europe and America who associate classical music with ideals that should never be question, and even extend these ideals to forms of chauvinistic cultural superiority. Discussions can quickly degenerate. For these reasons, forgive me if I do not participate unless genuinely meaningful comments are made. Corrections are welcome. Please provide documentation.


    And a final suggestion: For those interested in the history of the Vienna Phil during the Reich, I recommend Fritz Trümpi’s book, Politisierte Orchester. Die Wiener Philharmoniker und das Berliner Philharmonische Orchester im Nationalsozialismus.

    My only concern about this very scholarly book is that he so scrupulously avoids any reference to obvious correlations with the postwar era that it appears to be a politically convenient contrivance. But then, in Austria, addressing this history can be fraught with difficulties, so I understand his position.

    • A marvelous history, William.
      Thank you for the VERY interesting read!
      And, BTW, I very much enjoyed Maazel’s appearances – not only was the music played superbly, he really joined in the spirit of fun. He occasionally led from the violin, and also assisted the percussion section by playing glockenspiel and firing a cap gun!

  • Here’s a performance of the same Spanish March performed in 2011 with the Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst. The style is so different, it hardly sounds like the same piece as the recording above with Boskovsky. The brass sound of Vienna is now strongly influenced by the Chicago style. And note how much heavier the rhythmic nuance is, almost the somewhat thumpy style of the Berlin Phil.

    And note the almost complete loss of the tempo and rhymthic flexibility of the Boskosvky era. And note how the light, transparent sound of the Boskovsky era has vanished. (It seems that this lighter style of playing is part of what allowed for the greater rhythmic flexibility.) And note how all of this is being done with an Austrian conductor, and how this conductor is actually deeply connected to the Cleveland Symphony, and even involved in the city’s social projects.

    Comparisons of recordings like these contradict the Vienna Phil’s claims of a particular historical authenticity — something that is more of a marketing ploy than an actual fact. With jet set conductors, the universal availability of recordings from around the world, and the international nature of pedagogy, it is little wonder the old authentic national styles have been weakened. (Ironically, the Czech Phil, whose style and history is tied to Austria in numerous ways, and which was trapped behind the Iron Wall and thus removed from international influences, maintained the Vienna sound much longer than the Vienna Phil.)

    In the 2011 video, one can, however, see traditional instruments unique to the Vienna Phil like the Vienna horns, and the Vienna oboe. Also characteristic, though not nearly as unique, are rotary valve trumpets, German trombones, German clarinets, and special skins on the timpani — all clearly visible in the video. Comparing the videos shows that in spite of these instruments, the Vienna Phil’s sound and style has been significantly internationalized.

  • Maybe some day, the Vienna will look like the New York – about 70% women. So what? Why do modern people make every little thing an issue? If you like the concert, watch it – if not, don’t.

  • There have been good ones and bad ones and deadly dull ones. Dudamel’s in 2017 was fantastic. I’m hoping they will bring him back. Muti’s in 2018 was so-so

  • While there is no question at all regarding Thielemann’s knowledge, technique and expertise on the podium, this listener does not expect more than an automaton standing at attention with an occasional lean and smile to the orchestra. Kleiber, Karajan and yes, Pretre always brought something personal to these concerts. I feel that the personal is foreign to C.T. I have yet to see any growth from his MET debut those many years ago. Nonetheless, he does know his onions.

    • His podium technique is wooden but straightforward. His genius lies in his knowledge, sense of tradition, preparation, rehearsal, and choice of tempi, and interpretative choices.

      • If by the Viennese you mean the Vienna Philharmonic, then their love is worth a hell of a lot, especially for the concert. (I also love a lot Thieleman’s work, though I can’t argue that’s worth that much.)

        • Having lived in Vienna myself and enjoyed many nights at the Musikverein et al I can say it’s the Viennese people who love CT. I expect the orchestra likes him too, but I cannot speak for them.

  • Well, a dozen women is an improvement over one or two, but until the VPO has 50/50 men/women balance, the press shouldn’t be giving them a pass.

    • Haha, very funny. Same has to be said about US bomber and drone pilots, killing brown ‘Untermenschen’ in the rest of the world. 50/50 or no pass!
      And what about baseball teams?
      (I love to come to this site, because others are so even greatly more stupid than I am myself. Feels good.)

    • Yes, but it’s not like they’re sticking all the women in the back of the 2nd violins.

      Maybe it’s not a 50-50 ratio yet, but VPO is not batting an eye about giving their new women key roles. Of those dozen or so, tomorrow’s televised concert will feature at least 2 women in Principal positions.

      Watch the wind section. You’ll see Silvia Careddu (I believe this is just her 1st year with VPO) as Principal Flute, and Sophie (Dartigalongue) Dervaux, also still relatively new and in her probationary period as Principal Bassoon. Karin Bonelli, who was the 1st female wind player ever to be tenured with VPO, will be in the flute section.

      What blows my mind is that all 3 of these women won highly competitive auditions and go thru a probationary period of several years before they are tenured. Yet in all 3 cases, VPO has immediately, in their 1st year of probation, featured them in high profile positions on the televised New Year’s Concert. To me, it shows that VPO has a lot of confidence in their women players.

      The same year that she won her audition (several yrs. ago) Karin Bonelli was assigned to play solo piccolo in that year’s New Year’s concert. Given the repertoire – the Strauss waltzes and marches – she could have made or broken the entire performance.
      It was her 1st year with the orch.and her 1st televised appearance with VPO. I held my breath.

      As it turns out, she was spectacular. She switched up the old fashioned metal or metal head piccolo which VPO always uses and which is rather shrill, to a more modern wooden piccolo, with a softer, warmer sound. She played beautifully and she literally changed the sound of the orchestra. Needless to say she got tenure.

      Sophie Dervaux, Principal Bassoon, was also featured in her 1st year with the orch. in the televised New Year’s Concert. VPO has 2 Wind Principals, so this was a conscious choice by VPO to feature her. She was terrific!

      Now this year, newcomer Silvia Careddu, who just recently won her audition, will be playing Principal Flute in the televised concert. Again, there is another Principal Flute, so VPO has made the decision to feature Silvia. Silvia is one of Europe’s most highly regarded Solo flutes and she will be wonderful!

      So, OK, maybe the ratio of women to men in VPO hasn’t arrived at 50%, but VPO is featuring women with no hesitation whatsoever in prominent positions which shape the sound and style of the orchestra.

      • I’m so glad the orchestra is shaping up to your own world view and conforming to your first principles. You must be breathless waiting for that all-important quota to be filled. Are you also wearing a grey uniform and dressed exactly the same as everybody else? And what about the 26 genders now on offer? Are you going to measure the representation of those? You know you want to.

        • Yikes, Sue! Was that diatribe aimed at me? Whatever for? I’m not looking for a quota. You missed my point entirely. I was responding to “brian” who apparently does want a quota. He complained that until the ratio is 50 – 50 we shouldn’t celebrate. I was just trying to point out that it’ s not necessarily quantity but quality that might be more important here. I have no idea what you mean by 26 genders or grey suited conformity. I am just a simple orchestral musician, not professional Slipped Disc commenter. My comment was well intended and I’d hoped to point out something positive about the VPO, an observation, nothing more. Yes, maybe it is my “world view” because this is how I earn my living. I have personally lived thru the gender bias which VPO women have experienced. I’ve earned that ”world view” rightfully. You always seem to be in attack mode, “Sue”. Read more carefully before you aim your guns. You misfired this time.

      • Quite true. It should also be noted that since 2007 the VPO has been hiring women at a rate close to international norms. A rise to about 10% of the orchestra in ten years. The Berlin Phil, by contrast, has only reached 15% in the 35 years since it began admitting women.

        The set back was that the VPO agreed to admit women in 1997 due to massive international protests in the English-speaking world, but resisted hiring women (aside from harpists) for another ten years. In 2007, they had a change of philosophy and began truly admitting women at normal rates. A major cause was the retirement of some of the most hardcore sexists and the increasing number of younger players.

  • Regarding the BROADCAST of the concert, not necessarily the concert itself, it went downhill a few years ago when it became mostly canned bits and lost its sense of being a document of a live (taped live) EVENT.

    The commentator’s segments (boy I miss Walter Cronkite) are now clearly pre-recorded, the background of the shot being the never-changing ceiling of the hall, not the stage. The pretty but ridiculous fly-overs of rivers and castles, and the vapid dance sequences, shot in lush July gardens (hey, it’s always new year’s somewhere!) have sunk it for me.

    I don’t watch this junk anymore.

  • Wow, the women really make a difference to the sound of the orchestra!!! Imagine the VPO not having women for so many decades and continuing to be retrograde in sound and aesthetic as a consequence!! Girls, you’ve really made the difference!!

  • For what it’s worth, I have thoroughly enjoyed the rehearsals and the first concert this morning was very good. Maestro Thielemann doesn’t disappoint me at all. I am looking forward to Tuesday morning!

  • The concert while inviting in the new year reeks of the middle class putting on airs of respectability , sitting in a musical comfort zone of old tunes.Sort of a zombie get
    together who come to life briefly when clapping their hands
    to a second rate march .A ritual that speaks volumes about the human condition .

  • Who was the lovely red-haired lady playing the golden flute? Their website was down during the concert, no doubt everyone was trying to find her… but the whole thing was just amazing, lifted my spirits for 2019!!

    • Hi, Peter. That is Silvia Careddu of Italy. She recently won the VPO 1st flute position at a very competitive audition and is now in the 1st year (I believe) of her probationary period. Her credentials are stellar. She is a Geneva Competition winner, and previously played as Principal Flute in Vienna Symphony and before that Konzerthaus. She is one of Europe’s most highly regarded flute Principal Flutes and a very charismatic person. If any woman can break thru the the gender barrier it’s Silvia. https://www.silviacareddu.net/

      Right behind Silvia, and a few yrs. farther along in her probationary period was the Frenchwoman Sophie Dervaux, playing Principal Bassoon. Sophie is also a world class player, having won the prestigious ARD Competition. Sophie played contra with Berlin Phil before winning her VPO position. https://sophiedervaux.com/en/

      All eyes are on these 2 women who are on track to become the 1st female Principals in the history of the VPO.

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