Vienna, land of sachertorte, apfelstrudel, Wiener schnitzel, the Schönbrunn Palace and the Habsburgs, mused such classical music giants as Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler and Schoenberg, though the latter's invention of the 12-tone row is argued by some as being one of the tuneful catastrophes of the 20th century.
(Those sentiments are particularly embraced by music students coerced to sing 12-tone rows by number in required aural skills classes).
As the epicenter of good taste, anyone with a penchant for classical music has been exposed to the delight that is the portrayal of New Year's Eve in the Austrian capital. The Wiener Philharmoniker rings in each new calendar year with a musical bash that pays homage to the works penned by the Strausses, including the waltzes, polkas and lighter fare of Johann Strauss II.
This tradition dates back to 1941. It sells out almost a year in advance. Tickets are upwards of 940 euros ($1,250) and are available by lottery, though some families have legacy tickets that are passed down from generation to generation like a priceless heirloom. Acclaimed conductors to the likes of Riccardo Muti, Herbert von Karajan, Seiji Ozawa, Mariss Jansons, Daniel Barenboim and Claudio Abbado have led the joyful program; this year Franz Welser-Möst returns to the podium. The concert will be televised to 70 countries to the enjoyment of more than 60 million viewers.
"Messiah, Messiah, Messiah. Those are pretty much your choices for Baroque holiday programs at Christmas. But after Christmas, I can take more liberties."
Houston has it's own slice of Vienna thanks to early music ensemble Ars Lyrica. Matthew Dirst, artistic director, founder and keyboard virtuoso, has curated a program that recognizes the contributions of this melodious fete, and the group has been performing it for eight years.
"A Viennese New Year," set for 9 p.m. on Dec. 31 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, welcomes countertenor John Holiday, a Rosenberg native who's enrolled at the Juilliard School, and soprano Lauren Snouffer, a Houston Grand Opera studio member who won HGO's 2011 Eleanor McCollum Competition, "Concert of Arias," and who has recently appeared in HGO's The Italian Girl in Algiers, Don Carlos and The Barber of Seville.
"Messiah, Messiah, Messiah," Dirst jokes. "Those are pretty much your choices for Baroque holiday programs at Christmas. But after Christmas, I can take more liberties. New Year's Eve themed concerts allows Ars Lyrica to get out of that rut."
Ars Lyrica may be known for historically-accurate performances of 17th and 18th century compositions using instruments appropriate for the period. But in this case, Dirst is side-stepping away from factual convention — thankfully.
"New Year's Eve would be very dark, for starters," Dirst explains about 1600s Vienna. "If people even marked New Year's Eve, I suspect it would've been more of a religious observance if anything at all. Remember that the celebration of Christmas didn't begin until the Victorian Age. Big parties and exchanging gifts are a 19th century practice."
Certain principalities had New Year's Day gatherings, but big affairs are a modern day invention, he says. Before the adoption of the modern calendar, festivities around the new year meant different things to different people.
Ars Lyrica's fundraising concert gala nods to the merriment associated with Vienna and the city's premier orchestra today.
"At a certain point the Viennese decided that they had such a rich classical music tradition that it became important to share it with the world," Dirst adds. "The Vienna Philharmonic, as one of the most respected orchestras in the world, made it into a worldwide phenomenon, one which started during a very dark period in Austrian history.
"It was not exactly a happy time — the Nazi occupation — but a time for the Viennese to forget about political troubles and impending war."
Instead, Ars Lyrica's fundraising concert gala nods to the merriment associated with Vienna and the city's premier orchestra today with a playbill that includes Strauss' adorable Pizzicato Polka — on period instruments — alongside works by Gluck, Mozart, Fux and a piece by Schmeltzer that depicts a sword fight.
The affair is thronged by guests, some dressed to impress, others more comfortably clothed. The musical portion of the evening is followed with hors d'oeuvres from Artista Restaurant, plenty of bubbly, a toast at midnight and a sing-a-long of "Auld Lang Syne."
Leaving challenging times behind and looking forward to sunny days ahead. Isn't that what everyone needs at this time of the year?
Ars Lyrica's "A Viennese New Year" is on Dec. 31 at 9 p.m. at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets for the concert start at $35, $60 for the gala following the performance, and can be purchased online or by calling 713-315-2525.