Music Review: Viennese New Year Concert – Turkish Delight, Or Of Chronicles And Compositions

January 25, 2016



Viennese New Year Concert: Fairy Tales From The Orient / Johannesburg International Mozart Festival / Conductor: Richard Cock / Linder Auditorium, Johannesburg


The  Johannesburg International Mozart Festival continues to pull good crowds, a mark not only of the entertaining content packed into the many concerts packed into the programme, but of the excellent overall package put together by artistic director Florian Uhlig and South African classical music’s man of many hats Richard Cock, among others.

The programme for the festival’s opening Viennese New Year Concert featured a strong mix of well-known and slightly left-of-centre choices. Its Strauss-heavy composition had to do with the theme of this year’s festival, Alla Turca or “after the Turkish”, which refers to the influence of the Turkish invaders on the music of Vienna (where the Strauss family were based) in the “time of Mozart”, as Uhlig vaguely describes it in his programme notes.

Cock takes the time to explain this context before the orchestra begins and in between the compositions, and the value of his friendly, accessible manner and breadth of knowledge can’t be underestimated, as it immediately removes the perceived snobbishness sometimes associated with classical music (concert halls, tails, ballgowns) and makes watching the concert both a fascinating educational experience and an pleasing, more traditional, concert experience. He adds commentary to his narratives as well, making a playful introduction to Johann Strauss’ Pleasure Train into a remark about the role trains played in the expansion of empires and later noting that in many ways, today’s Europe and Mozart’s Europe are just as politically dangerous for those who have no choice but to flee their homelands in order to survive.

It’s interesting watching how Cock slightly adjusts his conducting style when the orchestra is joined by a soloist, as is seen early on when tenor Stefan Louw steps up for Franz Lehar’s Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz, and Cock slightly adjusted his rhythm according to the singer’s phrasing.

The audience are brought in as guests from time to time, trained to sing the part of the beggars in Albert Ketelbey’s In A Persian Market and to simulate the sound of compressed steam being released at the end of Eduard Strauss’ Bahn Frei.

For all of the entertainment being enjoyed by the audience, some of the orchestra members might benefit from a briefing about looking interested themselves – sure, they’ll have heard the stories a hundred times, but still: their blasé expressions are the one real dischordant note of the entire evening.

The translation of some of the German titles of the compositions underline the timelessness of the themes that inspired their composers, with Lehar’s Lippenschweigen, translated as “lips still”, which speaks of the pointlessness of speaking when every other gesture communicates the love one person feels for another.

Of the 18-tune line-up, the highlights were Johann Strauss II’s Fledermaus Overture, the aforementioned Pleasure Train and Mozart’s title track – more or less – for the whole affair: Rondo Alla Turca.