New Year's Concert 2018 Riccardo Muti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Sony)
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"I can conduct a waltz, but I cannot dance a waltz. Many years ago, my wife tried to convince me to. But then I was dancing on her feet so she said, that's enough, and we stopped."
It's a good thing being able to dance the waltz wasn't in the job description when Italian conductor Riccardo Muti was asked to lead the Vienna Philharmonic in its traditional New Year's Day concert. It's been a long Jan. 1 tradition for the orchestra to present a program of lively, nostalgic music from the family of Johann Strauss and his contemporaries. Muti has conducted this historic event not once but five times, and the 2018 performance has just been released on a two-CD set filled with Viennese waltzes, polkas and marches.
Had Muti followed his instincts when he was first asked to conduct the concert 25 years ago, you wouldn't be listening to this recording right now.
"When I was asked in 1993 to do the first New Year's concert, for several weeks, I said no. I refused to accept. Because I thought this concert should be conducted by conductors who have the music of the Strauss family or Lanner or Suppé in their blood," he recalls.
"But the president of the Vienna Philharmonic said to me, 'From the way you conduct Schubert, that is the typical Viennese composer, we think the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic think you are the right person to do this music.'"
Muti says there really is an art to conducting the waltzes of the Strauss family.
"The waltz is always in three: 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3. And the Viennese, joking, they say the Viennese waltz is 1, 2 and maybe 3. There's a sort of hesitation, of rubato, that is not easy. You can … try to imitate, but then it becomes a caricature of what in Vienna, for the Viennese, is so natural."
Muti has been music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2010, and he recently announced that he has extended his contract through 2022. He says adding the New Year's Day concert into his busy schedule isn't easy. Every spare minute is spent in preparing for the big event at the end of December. The first concert is on New Year's Eve, and then, Muti says, you might want to celebrate a little.
"You cannot drink too much, just a glass of champagne, possibly of good quality. And then you go to bed at 1 o'clock. And the next morning at 8 o'clock, you have to be ready and in good health, in good spirits, in good energy, because at 11 o'clock sharp, the concert starts."
And what a concert it is! Many look forward to New Year's Day in Vienna, broadcast live on public radio stations across the country. Here's why Muti believes this music is so intertwined with ringing in the new year.
"We must not forget that this music has a nostalgia and a melancholy. … We are near the end of an empire. And not only you feel this in the music of Bruckner and Mahler but also, before that, the music of the Strauss family that something is going to disappear. And that is the most difficult part," he says.
"Maybe this is one of the reasons why this music the first of January enters every country in the world and fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the first of January, because there is a hope for the future that is coming and there is a nostalgia for the past that is gone."
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ResourcesRiccardo Muti (official site)
Riccardo Muti: New Year's Concert 2018 (Sony site)
Riccardo Muti: New Year's Concert 2018 (Amazon)