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Viennese whirls - the showcase of the waltz

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


On the rostrum: Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons was in charge of the baton at this year's New Year's Day concert

On the rostrum: Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons was in charge of the baton at this year's New Year's Day concert

On the rostrum: Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons was in charge of the baton at this year's New Year's Day concert

If you fancy being in the audience for the next New Year's Day concert in Vienna, you'd better get your skates on.

There are actually three performances - a preview on the morning of December 30, a concert on New Year's Eve, and then at 11.15am local time on New Year's Day, the Vienna Philharmonic strikes up for the show that attracts over 40 million television viewers around the world.

To be in with a chance of taking your place at one of them, you have to apply online (wienerphilharmoniker.at/en) during the month of February.

The concert isn't as traditional as it would appear, and you might be surprised at its background.

It was first staged on New Year's Eve 1939, at the beginning of WWII. By then, Austria had been absorbed by the Third Reich. The show in Vienna was a benefit concert for the Nazis' winter relief fund.

Early performances were used as propaganda. Sixteen Jewish musicians were sacked. Five of them were killed in the concentration camps, two more died in the ghetto. The remainder were forced into exile.

It would be many years before the dark secrets of the orchestra were acknowledged. It was only in 2013 - the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss or annexation of Austria - that historians were given access to the Vienna Philharmonic's archive.

One consequence played out at this year's concert just last month. The traditional second encore, following The Blue Danube waltz, is Johann Strauss's Radetzky March.

Written in 1848 to commemorate a campaign victory led by the chief of staff of the Austrian army, Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky, it was scored for an ensemble typical of the time, much smaller than a full-blown symphony orchestra.

When it was first heard at a New Year Concert in 1946, it was an arrangement of the original, delivering a much bigger sound. It was the work of a composer called Leopold Weninger, who was a Nazi, having joined the party in 1932.

Weniger's version, with minor adjustments, was the one that traditionally closed the show, but this year, it was decided it was no longer appropriate.

For the 75th anniversary of the ending of WWII, it was adapted to remove the militaristic associations and put the emphasis on the feelgood factor in the music that encourages the audience to clap along.

The Blue Danube was still in its place as the first encore, but under the Latvian conductor, Andris Nelsons - making his debut at the New Year concert - there were several departures from tradition. Nine pieces on the programme were being heard for the first time at the event.

Music from the Strauss brothers' big rival Carl Michael Ziehrer opened proceedings. Joseph Hellmesberger Jnr was another lesser-known Austrian with a piece on the programme.

At the start of his 250th anniversary year, Beethoven featured. Appropriately, it was an extract from the music of his 12 Country Dances.

The conductor, who began his career in the brass section of the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera, surprised the audience when he presented the work of another New Year debutant, the Danish composer Hans Christian Lumbye. Nelsons emerged from the wings brandishing his trumpet which he proceeded to play evoking the era of the horse-drawn carriage as he opened Lumbye's Postillon Galop.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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