From our vantage point here on the ever-changing West Coast, the romantic tradition of the Viennese waltz seems impossibly exotic and remote, a holdover from a long-ago and faraway time. For those who live in the Austrian capital, however, close encounters with that seductive 3/4 pulse are an everyday event, at least during the winter months.
“Vienna is a very traditional place,” says Matthias Fletzberger, checking in with the Georgia Straight from the erstwhile home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gustav Mahler, and the two Johann Strausses, father and son. “In a way, we are still living in the 19th century. Growing up here was like… Well, I like Disney movies, but it’s real, sometimes. It sounds strange, but it really is, with all the imperial character of the town. We go ballroom dancing all through the ball season, which runs from November until the end of February. And this music by the Strauss family is omnipresent; it’s always there. You can’t avoid it even if you would like to.”
The 48-year-old Fletzberger—who’ll lead the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Strauss Symphony of Canada, the Kiev-Aniko Ballet, and four vocal soloists in a Viennese-themed concert on New Year’s Day—has made no effort to escape the waltz. His parents were avid dancers, and in his teens he graduated from helping to organize balls to playing at them, before becoming an acclaimed pianist and conductor with an outlandishly busy concert schedule.
In time, though, he stepped away from all that, taking a break from the stage to become general manager of Vienna’s largest cultural facility, the Sofiensaal. And there, he says, he learned that the four-on-the-floor pulse of electronic dance music was as valid a beat as waltz time.
“We had classical performances, but we also had clubbing nights for techno and house music,” he explains. “So I had to learn about entertainment in the 21st century, and this tempted me to bring some of the energy that is in contemporary popular music back into the classical-music field. That’s one of the ideas here: trying to produce similar excitement for the audience.”
Fletzberger doesn’t try to hide that his upcoming Salute to Vienna is primarily an entertainment, an audience-friendly way to usher in the new year in glittering style. At a different time of year, he says, he might expand the program to include something by Jacques Offenbach (“a big influence in Vienna”) or Mahler. But he wouldn’t modify it too much.
“Vienna is a city that avoids change: politically, culturally, and also regarding buildings,” he says. “When you try to have a new building, you get these huge discussions about it. And if you try to change the music at a ball or you try to change the program for the new year’s concert, there’s an outcry.
“For me, though, the music of the Strauss family is quite modern, and one can take a contemporary approach to it,” he adds, noting that there’s an existential quality to the music that is anything but ossified. “When you have a waltz in Paris, all three beats have equal rights, in a way. But in Vienna there’s always a certain doubt if you will reach the end. [The acclaimed German conductor] Bruno Walter once said that the Viennese waltz is ‘one, two, and maybe’, and this ‘maybe’, in a way, is not the character only of the waltz, but of the whole city. Eventually, we’ll finish!”