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Radio: New Year’s Day Concert

January 1, 2009

Barenboim, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

The best part of Christmas and New Year (and only if you’ve weathered the intense rollercoaster ride that is Christmas itself) is undoubtedly New Year’s Day morning.

There used to be a time when I’d look on the arrival of January 1 as a signal that the festivities were finally at an end.

Not so now.

New Year is spot lit perfectly by the New Year’s Day concert, the traditional annual Strauss-waltz-gorge fest from the Golden Hall in the Musikverein, Vienna.

In classical music terms the programme of music in this concert broadcast live across the world is what some (if not the majority) of serious music lovers would dismiss as nothing more than elevator music. It’s very nearly two hours of 19th century dance tunes composed by generations of Strauss’ to satisfy the entertainment demands made by upper echelons of European society.

There might be a strong beat and a memorably pretty melody guaranteed to satisfy the masses but classical music buffs turn their nose up at what is referred to sometimes disparagingly referred to as “light music”.

It’s a shame that it is dismissed in this way. I quite like it myself. Not only that, it’s certainly seen a resurgence in popularity over the past two to three years, in no small part down to passionate exponent and everyone’s favourite uncle-come-radio-presenter Brian Kay.

It was lovely Mr Kay – former presenter of his very own fluffy Light Programme on Radio 3 – who provided the commentary for the live broadcast this morning.

Kay has a passion for the traditional fare we see on New Year’s Day every year and delivers a traditional style of presentation which is refreshing and reassuring as it’s rooted in years of professional broadcasting experience and knowledge of the repertoire. The man is as much a part of the concert as the assembled ranks of the Vienna Philharmonic on the stage at the Golden Hall.

There are other parts of the broadcast which contribute to the emerging New Year’s tradition. It’s relatively sedate nature – perfect for that morning after the night before feeling – and the seemingly reasonable time its broadcast in the UK – 10am on BBC Radio 3 and 11.20am on BBC Two (TV). That’s not the case for the hoards of people who watch this Eurovision network broadcast live across the world. For some it’s last thing at night. That just seems completely wrong for New Year’s Day.

Perhaps the most gratifying thing is the opportunity to observe many hundreds of extremely well-dressed Austrians sit in the opulent Golden Hall, their eyes fixed in a look of perpetual confused delight and satisfaction. This is in itself possibly down to the fact they’ve actually been successful in the ballot for a ticket to the event. These things are the things to be seen at – especially when it’s broadcast to the world. Can’t think why I haven’t wanted to go myself.

The star of the show this year was undoubtedly Daniel Barenboim. He whose Mozart Piano Concerto recordings occupy a special place in my surprisingly small archive of CDs and who appeared during the 2008 BBC Proms, also maintains a busy schedule of conducting engagements and worthy mentoring projects.

For today’s concert, Barenboim selected a programme slightly different from previous years. Yes, the characteristic waltz rhythms were present. Yes, the melodies may have sounded similar to all the rest you’ve ever heard, but listen carefully and some were unfamiliar.

It was a deliberate move on Barenboim’s part, we were told. Given that it would have easy to go with the status quo and give the public what they wanted all of the time especially at a relatively high-profile low-brow gig like this, such a move by Barenboim was much appreciated by the discerning cognoscenti.

The conductor also provided a jaw-dropping moment when he responded to a spontaneous round of applause which broke out during the opening bars of the Blue Danube waltz.

It’s a famous tune and its inclusion is intended to celebrate so at this celebratory time one shouldn’t be too harsh on anyone who wants to show their appreciation at an inappropriate moment.

Conductors are not always so forgiving. They are after all having their performance interrupted. But still in these situations it’s a rare thing which prompts a conductor to actually stop a performance like Barenboim at this moment.

I felt his pain but was terrified to see a look of doom and foreboding on his face as he slowly turned to the audience. What the hell was he going to say? Was he really that angry?

“We hope 2009 will be year of peace in the world and of human justice in the Middle East.”

Cue raucous applause from the audience, a ‘happy new year’ from the orchestra and back to the music we’d all been waiting for. And all of that was going out live: a message to the world, with an enthusiastic agreement from the audience.

That’s what live radio and TV broadcasts to a global audience of classical music events are all about. They’re not just about the music, you know. However, I admit that the initial thrill of the moment I experienced earlier may well have been lost in the retelling of the moment.

The live radio broadcast on BBC Radio 3 is available via the BBC iPlayer (Part One & Part Two) internationally until Thursday 8 January.

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