If you’re Grammy Award-winning conductor Bramwell Tovey, that’s an easy one: You’re leading The Philadelphia Orchestra at Verizon Hall.
Tovey has conducted on New Year’s Eve all over the world, but this weekend’s concert is special for him. “The Philadelphia Orchestra is such a fun group. As well as being one of the great virtuoso orchestras in the world, they are actually really great fun to hang out with.”
This Saturday, that good time includes some of the world’s best-loved music, from Bernstein, Gershwin, and of course, Johann Strauss the Younger.
Tovey enjoyed a close connection with Leonard Bernstein, starting with a last-minute fill-in conducting role in 1986 at the Leonard Bernstein festival in London, and continuing to work with him that summer at Tanglewood. It was the start of Tovey’s international conducting career. “As you can imagine, working with Bernstein was pretty awesome!”
The Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve concert features music from Bernstein’s Candide, with the glittering assistance of soprano Tracy Dahl, who also features in several Gershwin numbers. “I think Tracy is such a wonderful actor, as well as being a great singer [with a four-octave range]. When she walks out, she just radiates bonhomie. She puts the whole audience in the palm of her hand; musicians love performing with her, too. She’s quite the artist.”
From Bernstein to Gershwin is a natural progression. But how do we get from there to Johann Strauss, Jr.? It turns out the Gershwins (George and brother Ira, the lyricist) wrote a song called “By Strauss,” which they used to perform at parties (it eventually made its way onto screen and stage). The song makes fun of Broadway composers (including Gershwin) and insists that only Strauss will do:
Oh give me the free ’n’ easy waltz that is Vienneasy,
And go tell the band, if they want a hand
The waltz must be Strauss’s.
“It’s got this beautiful waltz tune. The arrangement I’ve done also incorporates every waltz you can think of; I’ve quoted “The Blue Danube,” Der Rosenkavalier, Ravel’s La Valse, just in the spirit of the thing. Now, all these musical quotations will fly by, and only the very beady-eared in the audience will pick them up. It’s a real musician’s joke. But at the same time it’s very funny words and a great tune.”
Funny songs aside, Tovey calls Gershwin “a direct musical descendant of the operetta world of Johann Strauss, Jr.” But what is it about Strauss that makes him perfect for ringing in the New Year?
“Strauss wrote the greatest light music there is, and there’s always this feeling of almost unrelieved joy in his compositions. The musicians always comes to work in such a great mood, because the music just lifts you. It’s so elegant and unforced; there’s just such a warmth and humanity about it. There are no great dark moments in Johann Strauss, no truly tragic moments, unlike in Brahms or Mahler or Beethoven or Mozart, where we see tragedy and levity mixed. But in Strauss we have nothing but great warmth, good positive emotional feelings, and this tremendous joie de vivre.”
The fun continues for Bramwell Tovey on New Year’s Eve, after he’s put down his baton. A member of the brass section is having a party, and Tovey’s invited. “We’ll be having a good time!”
And so will you, if you say hello to 2017 on Saturday night with Bernstein, Gershwin, Strauss, Bramwell Tovey … and The Philadelphia Orchestra!
As of December 27, there are just a few seats left for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve Concert. Go here to purchase tickets.
Photo by Jessica Griffin