Something was distinctly missing from the annual Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Day concert of Strauss waltzes and other classical bon-bons on Friday: a live audience in Vienna’s historic Musikverein.
The mid-day Vienna-time concert, broadcast worldwide by radio, television and livestream, usually is accompanied by exuberant applause from the lucky concertgoers who get tickets from among the 50,000 who apply.
This year, though, the Covid virus and resulting lockdown restrictions in Austria, like elsewhere in Europe, put paid to a live audience, but not the concert, which has been held annually since 1939 and is one of the best loved musical traditions marking the start of the New Year.
The Blue Danube Waltz and the Radetzky March must be heard! So there, in the opulent, gilded surroundings of the Musikverein and led by Italian conductor Riccardo Muti for the sixth time, the Vienna Philharmonic played their hearts out, with not an audience member in sight.
“We are playing this New Year’s concert in a very unusual situation,” Muti said, as the two-hour concert neared its conclusion. “We know that we are playing for many millions of people around the world, practically more than 90 different countries.
“But it’s very strange for us to play in such a beautiful, historical hall completely empty.”
He said the orchestra, whose members were tested daily for the virus before the concert, were inspired by the spirits of famous composers and conductors such as Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler and others who frequented the hall since its inauguration in 1870.
But all told, he said, 2020 had been an “annus horribilis”, for the world, and in a special way for musicians.
“We are still here, living, in a message of music,” he said. “Musicians have, in their weapons, flowers, not things that kill. We bring joy, hope, peace, brotherhood, love with a capital ‘L’.”
He said music played an important role during a time of pandemic, when people are preoccupied with their health and safety.
“Health is the first, most important thing, but also the health of the mind – and music helps,” he said.
“So my message to the governors and presidents and prime ministers everywhere, in every part of the world: consider culture always as one of the primary – ‘primere’ – elements to have a better society in the future.”
With that, Muti and his band went on to play Strauss’s immortal “Blue Danube Waltz” — so beautifully, so exquisitely, some listeners may have been moved to tears. 2020 was the year the live music mostly died. 2021 is the year it will – must – spring back to life, for all our sakes.
— By Michael Roddy