Viennese New Year / Conducted by Richard Cock / Linder Auditorium, Parktown, Johannesburg
Now well on its way to become as beloved an institution as the Austrian tradition on which it is based, the Viennese New Year concerts that precede the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival each year are an exercise in good cheer, warm humour and superb music. The repertoire, as has been the case in Vienna since the morale-boosting event was first staged in something like its current format in 1939, is built around the music of the city’s famous sons, Johann Strauss I and Johan Strauss II, as well as some of their contemporaries.
This means audiences (in Vienna and in Johannesburg) have come to expect compositions that are light by beautifully crafted. Strauss the Younger receives the lion’s share of the attention this year, contributing Kaiser Walzer, Klipp Klapp Galopp, Tritsch Tratsch Polka and the iconic The Blue Danube Waltz.
As usual, Richard Cock doubles up as an excellent conductor and, arguably – in terms of the unique impact on the event – an even better host. He has a gentle sort of authority that keeps the fine musicians who make up the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra on track and expressive while also maintaining a constant connection with the audience. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the material he’s chosen for the line-up means that the introductions to each piece are warm, anecdotal stories rather than bland statements and the time between the compositions passes with warm laughter and the enjoyment of learning something new about music of varying familiarity.
The opening piece, Emil Von Reznicek’s Donna Diana Overture, is a merrily manic tune that feels like it should be the soundtrack to the characters from The Wind In The Willows in the care chase from The Italian Job. There also wonderful efforts from tenor Sipho Fubesi and soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi in Puccini’s Musetta’s Waltz (from La Boheme), Lehar’s Wie Eine Rosenknospe (from The Merry Widow) and Verdi’s Parigi, O Cara (from La Traviata). Both are technically exceptional but also have great tone and personality in their voices.
The general conviviality and feeling of being part of a community rather than a crowd of strangers was augmented considerably at the end of the night when Cock announced that Fubesi had asked permission to make a brief statement to the audience and the young singer used the opportunity to call his girlfriend up on stage and propose to her.
An excellent concert with a programme that is agreeably familiar and gratifyingly stimulating at the same time.