Salute to Vienna New Year’s Concert | Hege Gustava Tjønn, sop.; Gergely Boncsér, ten.; Europaballett St. Pölten; International Champion Ballroom Dancers. Alastair Willis, conductor; Strauss Symphony of Canada. January 1, 2:30 p.m., Roy Thomson Hall.
For those music lovers of a certain age who are still energetic enough after the revelries on New Year’s Eve, a trip to Roy Thomson Hall on New Year’s Day for Salute to Vienna is a great option. This annual New Year’s Concert presented by Hungarian-Canadian impresario Attila Glatz and his wife Marion (they were both in attendance this year) has become quite a tradition in Toronto. This year’s show was the 24th, and it was completely sold out. Similar shows were presented in many cities across Canada and the United States.
As usual, I got there early, mainly to avoid snarled traffic and underground garage hassles, but also to sit myself near the main entrance for some serious people-watching. With each passing year, the audience demographic is increasingly superannuated. Today I lost count of the number of people arriving with the aid of a wheelchair, walker, or cane. Typically the matinee audience is older given the ease of daylight travel, but it’s also because of the programming, which is more, shall I say, traditional.
Lest I be accused of ageism, I’m rapidly joining the club myself. I salute the many older folks with mobility issues, still making the effort to come. Salute to Vienna programming is best described as “comfortably predictable” and “appealingly formulaic.” Its unabashedly old-fashioned content is a big draw – two-plus hours of waltzes, marches, polkas, operetta arias, ballet and ballroom dancing, enhanced by plenty of banter from this year’s super-chatty Maestro, Alastair Willis. He’s an old hand at creating an atmosphere of Old World Gemütlichkeit. Well, it worked — the elderly gentleman in front of me couldn’t resist humming along. Not my favourite audience behaviour, but what the heck, it’s New Year’s!
Kudos to Austrian soprano Hege Gustava Tjønn and Hungarian tenor Gergely Boncsér. Ms Tjønn was new to me, and she was wonderful, looking gorgeous and singing with gleaming tone and abundant charm, not to mention a terrific C-sharp at the end of Rosalinda’s Csardas from Die Fledermaus. Mr. Boncsér, outstanding in Bravissimo, possesses a beautiful lyric tenor with all the money notes. Tall and slim, he was the perfect partner for the soprano, and they sang brilliantly selections from Countess Maritza, Fledermaus, Gypsy Baron, and Land of Smiles.
The orchestral pieces were the predictable “old standards.” The concert opened with Alastair Willis leading the pick-up Strauss Symphony of Canada in the Overture to Die Fledermaus. There was no listing of the orchestral musicians in the program, but from my vantage point, I could tell it’s largely the same as the Opera Canada Symphony the night before, led by concertmaster Marie Berard, who also happens to be the concertmaster of the COC Orchestra.
The Fledermaus overture was followed by the Emperor Waltz, Feuerfest Polka, Schatz Waltz and the like. The dancers this year were the Europaballett from St.Pölten, Austria, and the Hungarian International Champion Ballroom Dancers — all youthful, attractive, energetic, and invariably smiling. They also looked like they were from the same cookie-cutter, par for the course when it comes to ballet dancers. As expected, they charmed the audience and received vociferous applause.
The formal program ended with the relatively unfamiliar Sport Polka-schnell by Josef Strauss. Wait a minute — you mean no Blue Danube Waltz? Have no fear — I’ve seen enough of these shows to know that this showstopper of a waltz is always reserved as an encore. True enough, and it was beautifully played by the Strauss Symphony, which was made up of experienced professional musicians from the various bands that were in hiatus over the holidays. The penultimate piece was another audience favourite, the Radetzky March. The afternoon ended with the customary Auld Lang Syne, with the audience standing. Everybody went home happy, but not before many of them lining up at the box office to book their Salute to Vienna tickets for 2020!