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Clemens Hellsberg Exclusive Interview: December 27, 2011

Vienna Philharmonic
1992 New Year's Concert in the 150th Jubilee Year of the Wiener Philharmoniker
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber

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Rel. 21 Apr 1992

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Best of Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concerts
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On Thursday, December 1, 2011, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with Dr. Clemens Hellsberg, the President and a first violinist of the esteemed Vienna Philharmonic, about the great tradition of the Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Concerts. In this delightful conversation, Dr. Hellsberg discusses the unique bond between the Philharmonic and the music of the “Strauss dynasty” (especially Johann Sr. and Jr., but also the latter’s brothers Josef and Eduard), as well as the timeless qualities of this music that helps make this annual concert tradition – about to celebrate its 72nd installment – such a huge success with audiences and fans around the world. The two also discuss the sophisticated process by which these concerts are devised, including a special “sneak peek” that Dr. Hellsberg offers visitors to Classical Archives, in advance of the forthcoming release by Sony Classical of the concert itself, among much more. Our feature also includes a 1-Click Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert, with full streams for subscribers, and a set of Vienna Philharmonic videos – including several from past New Year’s concert. Enjoy this great interview; and Happy New Year from all of us at Classical Archives!

“This [New Year’s] concert is tied to the very identity of our orchestra, to its individuality, and also to the orchestra as a representative of Vienna and its music… Generations of people all over the world are fond of the music of the Strausses, and the only explanation is that it’s great music with many dimensions.”
– Clemens Hellsberg

Nolan Gasser: Clemens Hellsberg, welcome to Classical Archives. There are, of course, many famous annual music festivals around the world that music lovers eagerly anticipate, but there are very few individual annual concerts that audiences await with this same kind of fervor – and surely none so much as your Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Concert, this year celebrating its 72nd straight installment – and which will be broadcast on TV to over 50 million viewers worldwide. As both its President and one of its long-standing first violinists, how would you characterize the importance of this annual concert to the overall identity and character of the Vienna Philharmonic?

Clemens Hellsberg: I would say that this concert is tied to the very identity of our orchestra, to its individuality, and also to the orchestra as a representative of Vienna and its music. This New Year’s concert is, without doubt, a part of our identity, and we are particularly careful with playing the Strauss’ music – in fact, it is our orchestra’s only Strauss event of the year. Unless it’s an anniversary of a member of the Strauss “dynasty”, we play practically no other Strauss concert. This music belongs among the greatest music ever written; now, because it isn’t afraid to show the lighter dimensions of life - not only joy and happiness, but even danger in a subtle way – some people think, “Oh, it’s just music for entertainment”. But it is great music – if it were not, it would not have survived nearly 200 years: since Johann Sr. [1804-49] and [Joseph] Lanner [1801-43] created the concert waltz form – the Wiener Walzer – in the 1820s. Generations of people all over the world are fond of the music of the Strausses, and the only explanation is that it’s great music with many dimensions.

NG: That certainly is a very nice way of framing: I think it’s true that when many of us first think of the music of Johann Strauss – both I and II – we tend to think of light, entertainment music; but as you rightly say, this is also music of great sophistication and depth. In some ways, it has very distinct aesthetic placement in the literature: it’s not quite popular music, and not quite high art music – it sort of hits people where they live, and perhaps can communicate both a light and dark side of life in way that Brahms and Bruckner can’t quite.

CH: Yes, you are right. This music creates a special bond, which unites people of different ages, social structures, religions, and even continents. Whenever we play this music – not just at the New Year’s concert, but often as an encore to other concerts, whether a waltz, a polka, a march, etc. – you can see the audience’s reaction, it’s always the same: people feel both happy and touched; but it’s a happiness that also has a deeper aspect to it.

NG: You’ve written a terrific mini-history of the origins on the New Year’s concert on the Philharmonic’s website, and I was a bit surprised to learn that the relationship between the orchestra and Johann Jr. was not particularly close at first; though, of course, it does warm up, and eventually evolves into this rich yearly tradition that is so much a part of your city’s cultural life. So, what is it about this music, in your view, that so inexplicably says, “Vienna”?

CH: I would say that it’s a combination, on the one hand, of elegance, freshness, and happiness; and on the other of a kind of melancholy that in subtle way comes in from time to time if you listen carefully. To me, there’s only one other composer who strikes that balance – who to me is like a grandfather of the Strauss dynasty: and that’s [Franz] Schubert. It’s not by chance that Lanner was born 4 years after, and Johann Sr. just 7 years after Schubert’s birth; both were thus contemporaries of Schubert – and that’s not an accident. Schubert is therefore directly connected to the music of the Strausses – not to mention the composer of probably the greatest music ever written!

NG: So, in some ways, this distinct mixture of beautiful elegance and subtle melancholy is something that comes out of the Viennese soul and character… and thus its composers are able to meld them in a particular way that composers from other cities cannot?

CH: Yes, exactly. You know, there’s a tendency for us to speak of the “good old days”; in my view this is generally nonsense: the good old days never existed, it’s always a chimera. But there is one single point where the good old days really did exist – and it still exists in the music of the Strauss dynasty; it’s the Austro-Hungarian monarchy at its best because in this music, ideals are realized that in everyday life were only fragmentarily realized. If you study the titles of all of their pieces, you learn that the members of this family were involved in all of the key political, technical, and social developments of their time – they were at the center of their time. When you think of how many great classical composers were admirers of the Strauss dynasty – Wagner, Brahms, Liszt, Tchaikovsky – it is self-evident. To me, this music represents timeless values, and the timeless values of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, since this “union” – consisting of so many different states – was an early realization of the European Community.

NG: And this balance of elegance and melancholy, of high and lower arts, also left its legacy on later musical developments – even in the United States, with ragtime and later jazz and musical theater.

CH: And as with those genres, it is here too a balance between melody and rhythm. Take the polka, for example: the main element is the rhythm, but they also created these great melodies. And if you listen to the melody of the polka section, and then melody of the Trio section, you are like in different worlds; like in a Minuet-Trio of a classical symphony. But this is always done in a subtle way – never making it clear that “now I’m bringing this type of melody for this rhythm, and now that kind of melody”; instead it’s always done in an elegant way.

NG: The Vienna Philharmonic has a very unique structure – not top-down as with most orchestras, but very much a democracy [uniquely, the Vienna Philharmonic has no permanent conductor]. I’m assuming that the Philharmonic as a whole embraces the idea that the New Year's concert should be dedicated largely to the Strauss dynasty – though of course, each concert always presents a few works by other composers, especially those with ties to Vienna. But are there times when some of the musicians have expressed a desire to shake things up, saying, “This year, let’s do an all-Schubert concert?”

CH: No, it is absolutely clear that the focus must be on the Strauss dynasty – and also Lanner, who for us is the same. And then, as you say, there are some other composers related to the Strauss dynasty such as [Carl Michael] Ziehrer, [Franz von] Suppé, and [Joseph] Hellmesberger – who was an incredibly gifted violinist and also an elegant composer. At the same time, over the past few years, I’ve tried to demonstrate how connected this unique dynasty was with the broader world of music; so, for me it’s always a goal to include composers who have some relationship or another to them – which is why we played Offenbach two years ago [the overture to the comic opera, Die Rheinnixen], and Liszt last year [Mephisto Waltz No.1].

The story behind this last one is that Johann Sr. had dedicated a piano waltz to Liszt – one that Liszt later adapted into his Grand galop chromatique [S.219]; and Johann also incorporated themes from Liszt into his Furioso-Galopp [Op.114]. So, in the concert we played this latter piece by Johann, and we then played Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz; it shows that such an artist as Liszt was likewise fascinated and challenged by the waltz form – and thus I saw this as a good opportunity for a tribute.

NG: Somewhat similarly, I noticed that you recently programmed Johann Jr.’s Quadrille on Verdi’s Un ballo di maschera, though not yet any work by Verdi himself. Clearly, he is likewise a composer who could well straddle between the serious and entertainment worlds – have you considered programming one of Verdi’s works in a New Year’s concert?

CH: That is an interesting idea; and you are right: especially Verdi’s early and middle period works are very often misunderstood – because like the Strausses, his music has so many dimensions. For example, if one listens carefully to La Traviata: I’ve often heard people say that this is “simple” music, but that’s absolute nonsense! On the surface it may seem simple, but only a genius can describe a character’s soul in only a few bars.

NG: Yes, it is a miraculous thing to write such a good melody that can touch us profoundly, and stand the test of time – as is the case with so many Strauss melodies as well.

You've hinted a bit about the planning of these New Year’s concert programs; there are a couple of staples each year – that is, the two encores of Johann Sr.’s Radetzky March [Op.228] and Johann Jr.’s Blue Danube Waltz [Op.314] – though the heart of the program varies from year to year. Happily, there’s so many waltzes, polkas, marches, quadrilles, etc. from the Strausses and others in their orbit. So, can you discuss in a bit more detail how the program is set: is it something that you put together; or do you work with the guest conductor for that year?

CH: There are different steps to the process: first of all, I look at the upcoming year, to see if there is a big musical anniversary. For example, 2010 was the 200th birthday of Otto Nicolai, our founder [of the Vienna Philharmonische Academie, in 1842]. So, it was absolutely clear that we must do the overture to his comic opera The Merry Wives of Windsor. In 2009, it was the 200th anniversary of [Joseph] Haydn’s death – so we performed the Finale of the ‘Farewell’ Symphony [No.45 in F#-]; in 2006, it was the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth – so we performed the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. And if the conductor had said, “No, I cannot do that,” I would have said, “Okay, no problem – we’ll invite you next year.”

NG: [Laughs] Well, that's making it clear!

CH: Yes, there are some things that have to be done – right? So, first we see if there are important anniversaries or other historic events. Next, I speak to the conductor, to see if he has a favorite waltz or other piece; if they say “yes”, I try to create a kind of story around it. Or perhaps there’s a connection I can draw with the conductor himself and his career: for example, in 2009 we had Daniel Barenboim as our guest conductor. I decided to start with the Overture to Johann Jr.’s operetta A Night in Venice [RV510], since it was the only one of his 16 opera overtures that was not been created in Vienna, but rather in Berlin – and Barenboim was the head of the Berlin Opera! Then, the next piece on the program was a fine waltz that we’d never done at a New Year’s concert, called Fairy Tales from the Orient [Op.444]
NG: I see – so, it's a combination of considering what's on the historic calendar, and also thinking about the personality and career of the guest conductor – that's very interesting.

CH: Right, and then you also have to think about how to give both parts of the concert a distinctive shape; for example, it would not make sense to play three waltzes in a row followed by 7 polkas. In all, it’s a very delicate thing – to place a polka-mazurka at the right time, for instance; you also can’t just play highlights or play the same pieces each year.

NG: Right, you can’t play the Emperor Waltz [Op.437, of Johann Jr.] every year…

CH: Exactly, you have to put in a quadrille, or a polka-mazurka, or a polka-française – you have to give the audience the opportunity to enjoy something unfamiliar; let’s say, for example, a polka-mazurka like the Dragonfly – one of the finest pieces by Josef Strauss [brother of Johann Jr.]. It’s a five-minute piece, where practically nothing happens – but it has an atmosphere that is absolutely unique: it reminds me of a lake with dragonflies around, and it brings forth all the desires, impressions, reminiscences, laughter, and melancholy that comes with it – all which can enter the soul of the listener. I have to be aware of all such elements when I prepare the program.

NG: Well, you're taking them on a 2½-hour journey, so it’s a lot of responsibility. In essence, you’re not just acting as a concert programmer; you’re being a director. Looking further at that 2009 concert with Barenboim, I see that beyond the Finale of the ‘Farewell’ Symphony, you also preceded it with a polka by Johann Jr. called Hail to Hungary [Op.332]; I assume that this little nod to Hungary – and the Esterházy [the patron family of Haydn] – was no accident.

CH: Absolutely. We also included the [Overture to Johann Jr.’s operetta] Gypsy Baron [RV511], and then the Schatz-Walzer (‘Treasure Waltz’, Op.418) – which is also from the Gypsy Baron; then came the Haydn. And all that was in honor of Esterházy’s Hungary.

NG: Very interesting. And finally, Dr. Hellsberg, I saw on the VPO website that the contents of next year’s upcoming concert would be announced in the near future – can you give us a sneak peek?

CH: Well, we usually keep this a secret… but for the readers at Classical Archives, I’ll give you a preview.

We’ll start with a piece we’ve never played before, the Vaterländischer Marsch (‘Patriotic March’) by both Johann Jr. and Josef; it’s an interesting piece: it was written in response to a tragic event – the Battle of Solferino [fought on June 24, 1859 between the united French army (under Napoleon III) and Sardinian army (under King Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia) against the Austrian army (under Emperor Franz Joseph); the war was extremely costly and horrific for both sides, though a larger defeat for the Austrians, who were forced to yield their position and retreat; Swiss activist Jean Henri Dunant’s eyewitness to the battle led to his establishing the Geneva Convention and the International Committee of the Red Cross] – and was a very patriotic gesture; musically, it’s interesting not only because it was written by both brothers, but because they quote their father’s Radetzky March – at the beginning, and then at the end you hear a few bars of their father’s march as well.

The next piece is another one that has never been played in one of our New Year’s concerts: the Rathhaus-Ball-Tänze [Op.438]. Rathaus means “city hall”; the story is that a new city hall was built in Vienna [in 1890], and Johann Jr. was asked to write a waltz for a big ball in the theater. In it, he quotes different themes – first, the anthem of the Austrian monarchy [“Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”, often called the “Kaiserhymne” or Emperor’s Hymn, music by Joseph Haydn]; and then he quotes the “unofficial anthem” of Austria, the Blue Danube Waltz – that is, he quotes himself in a most unique way.

NG: Yes, that sounds fascinating.

CH: Next are a few polkas; and then we play another piece that was premiered at the Rathaus-Ball, this one by Ziehrer ­– the Wiener Bürger Waltz [‘Viennese Citizens’], Op.419]. You see, it was kind of a competition between these two composers: Strauss wrote a highly artistic piece – he was at the peak of his abilities, and this waltz is fantastic; Ziehrer wrote a typically Viennese waltz – great, no doubt, but not to be compared to the Strauss from a technical standpoint. Still, Ziehrer succeeded with the public [indeed, to this day, Ziehrer’s waltz is more well-known; the “defeat” suffered by Strauss following this ball was a source of great distress to the composer in his later years].

And since we feature this Viennese competition, we’ll also represent another competition – namely, with the Albion-Polka, Op.102 – “Albion” meaning Great Britain [that is, the old Roman name referring to the island of Great Britain, written in 1851 in honor of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. This is in honor of the most prominent event in the world of sports happening in 2012: the Olympic Games in London.

NG: Right – another example of an anniversary of sorts; very nice.

CH: Then, in the second part of the concert, we start with a piece by Hellmesberger – who was concertmaster and conductor of our orchestra; then, two pieces to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the Gesellschaft der Musikfruende [Society of Music Friends] – the society of music lovers who built the Musikverein [the concert hall home of the Vienna Philharmonic]: specifically, two pieces by Josef and Johann that were dedicated to the society [no title was given, but a likely candidate is Johann Sr.’s Gesellschafts-Walzer, Op.5].

Next is a piece by the Danish composer [Hans Christian] Lumbye, 1810-74] – often called “the Strauss of the North”; he was a great admirer of the Strausses. We’ve decided to play it on January 1 because on that date the nation of Denmark gains the presidency of the European Union.

We then will play several pieces that are connected to St. Petersburg – because Mariss Jansons [the conductor of this upcoming New Year’s concert] grew up there. One work we’ll do for him as well is Josef Strauss’ Feurfest [“fire festival”] Polka [Op.269] – with the Vienna Boys Chorus and Mariss Jansons himself playing the percussion [the piece calls for bells and a gong]. We’ll also do the Carmen-Quadrille by Eduard Strauss – because Maestro Jansons was scheduled to conduct [Bizet’s opera] Carmen last year at the Vienna State Opera, but he fell ill and had to cancel; so at least he’ll get to do the Carmen-Quadrille.

NG: That’s a nice consolation for him.

CH: And then comes the biggest connection to St. Petersburg – by one of the great composers who so admired Johann Jr., and that was Tchaikovsky. We’ll perform two pieces from Sleeping Beauty: the “Panorama” [from Act II] and the famous Waltz [from Act I]. We also perform the famous Pizzicato Polka and Josef’s Brennende Liebe [mazuka-polka, Op.129] – because they were both written for the city of St. Petersburg [Johann Jr., for example, received steady commissions from the leading directors of the St. Petersburg-based Tsarkoye-Selo Railway Company, between 1856 and 1865]. This performance of Tchaikovsky’s music is the biggest surprise of the concert!

NG: When you hear all of the rich and thoughtful explanations for the repertoire you’ve selected, one can see why this tradition has survived, and is so popular. A clear advantage too is to center these concerts on the music of the Strausses – who were not only quite gifted, but also quite prolific, and so you have lots of choices from which to shape these stories and connections.

CH: Yes, I'm really quite fascinated by this dynasty – not only by their music, but also by their involvement in European culture, history, and politics.

NG: Well, thank you for this sneak peek into the upcoming concert – I know our listeners will appreciate it. And we’ll soon look forward to hearing ­– and seeing – the concert itself.

CH: Thank you so much; I really enjoyed talking with you.


 
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