Whilst containing some expected pieces, this Viennese New Year programme was a carefully curated mix of unfamiliar dance music and operetta, with just a light sprinkling of the typical expected bonbons; there were enough sugar coated delights to enchant and delight, but not overtly so as to make one feel nauseous. Each item was linked with an anecdote, just long enough and with gentle humour from Christoph Altstaedt to entertain the adults; the children in the audience were enthralled throughout, which is testament to how carefully considered the programme was.

Gan-ya Ben-Gur Akselrod © Tehila Sharafi Cobe
Gan-ya Ben-Gur Akselrod
© Tehila Sharafi Cobe

From the first note of Suppé’s overture to Light Cavalry, Altstaedt crafted the sound, trumpet fanfares were brash without being harsh, expressive without being clichéd and articulate without being fussy. Throughout this judiciously paced overture, the character shone through so much a number of children in the audience rode imaginary horses. Eduard Strauss’ Telephone Polka followed, despite telephones not having reached Vienna at the time of composition, this was a nod from the enterprising brother of Johann II, to the forthcoming technology. At the end of the piece the percussionists using a mallet imitated the breaking-up of that much loved concert instrument — the mobile phone, to much laughter and applause. Gan-ya Ben-gur Akselrod replaced the advertised Noah Stewart. In her first appearance she sang “A Room Apart” from The Opera Ball by Richard Heuberger. This was light, gentle and as full of pastel colours as a dish of sugared almonds. 

The waltz Sirens of the Ball followed. Containing all the “best bits” from Lehar’s The Merry Widow it was tastefully done with just the gentlest of rubato. Adding further interest to this skilfully curated programme, Tamás Kocsis — the leader of the Ulster Orchestra – took the solo part in Kreisler’s Liebeslied. His tone was rich and fell from his violin like the finest silk. This playing was elegant and refined but still allowed the gipsy elements to shine through. Making a comparison with the gossip surrounding the wedding of Prince Harry to Megan Markle, Altstaedt drew attention to society gossip in 19th-century Austria, before embarking on the Trisch-Tratsch Polka. A more measured reading here highlighted the very expressive musical detail. With just a wink to Viennese operetta, Bernstein’s “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide followed. Akselrod was charmingly comical, her acting and bright coloratura brought the first half to a fitting close.

Lumbye’s Champagne Galop twinkled like the fizziest bubbly in finest lead crystal flutes after the interval. Continuing the drinking theme, the Schwipslied (Tipsy Song) from A Night in Venice followed, Akselrod impressing with the clarity of her diction and acting. The next piece provided some fastidiously judged contrast, Zieher’s Night Owl Waltz. The men of the orchestra were in fine voice as they imitated the merry songs of late night Vienna. The Carefree Polka by Josef Strauss was musically shaped and enchanting. The Skater’s Waltz by Waldteufel was played with precision and simplicity from the orchestra which allowed the music to speak, elegantly sweeping us along across the ice. Akselrod gave a captivating rendition of Adele's Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus.

Taking us in a different direction, percussionists donned conductor’s hats for Lumbye’s Copenhagen Railway Steam Galop. Altstaedt paced this to perfection, bringing out all the pictorial elements including columns of steam appearing from the back of the stage at appropriate moments. No New Year concert would be complete without The Blue Danube. Opening with the most exquisite pianissimo, the piece grew at a gentle pace and kept within the bounds of restraint. Nothing was overdone or over-exaggerated and the famous melodies swayed with sophistication.  

The first of three generous encores followed. The Thunder and Lightening Polka had judiciously balanced trombones and percussion. Making her final appearance, Akselrod sang “When one presents roses in Tyrol” from Carl Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler, with such clarity and persuasion. No such evening would be complete without Johann Strauss I's Radetzky March, complete with audience participation. 

Throughout the concert the orchestral sound was impeccably balanced, phrasing had a finesse and there was a refinement in the playing, testament to Adtstaedt’s conducting. In a concert entitled “Vienna!”, despite the wonderful evening of music taking us on a imaginary journey to the city of dreams, it was disappointing emerging from Waterfront Hall to see it had not been transformed into the Musikverein, Stormont into The Hofburg Palace and the Lagan into the beautiful blue Danube.

*****