Wednesday 4 January 2023

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Muzak - New Year in Salzburg

Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg
New Year’s Eve concert (Silvesterkonzert); Eva Hinterreithner (mezzo-soprano), Markus Obereder (tenor/baritone saxophone), Daniel Strasser (tenor), Helmut Zeilner (tenor), Das Ballaststofforchester Salzburg conducted by Egon Achatz; SZENE, Salzburg
New Year’s Day concert (Neujahrskonzert); Rossini The Thieving Magpie, Paganini: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, No.2, in B minor; Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 in A major (The Italian), Benjamin Schmid (violin), Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg conducted by Leo McFall; Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Reviewed by Tony Cooper: 31 December 2022 / 1 January 2023 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)

Our correspondent Tony, sees the Old Year out in Salzburg with an evening of songs from the Golden Age of operetta, and rings in the New with some dazzling Paganini.

Two contrasting concerts from Salzburg, the Ballastofforchester Salzburg under Egon Achatz in a New Year's Eve concert of jazz-age songs and operetta at SZENE (31 December 2022), and then violinist Benjamin Schmid, Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg conducted by Leo McFall in Rossini, Paganini and Mendelssohn at the Großes Festspielhaus (1 January 2023).

The Ballaststofforchester Salzburg, under the direction of Egon Achatz, delighted a packed and excited house seemingly on fire in the SZENE concert hall (originally built to house Salzburg’s first Cinemascope theatre in 1950 but converted into a concert hall in 2002) for their New Year’s Eve jazz-orientated party (Silvesterkonzert). 

They performed a host of Big Band numbers to some unforgettable songs from the Golden Age of Austrian/German operetta to the rousing, roaring and freewheeling decades of the 1920s to the 1940s, a repertoire that they have revelled in successfully for the past quarter century.

In addition to the band’s accomplished coterie of 13 players, the vocal team more than matched their professionalism, particularly by the superb quality of the beautiful and enchanting singer, Eva Hinterreithner, who kept good company with a fine trio of male vocalists comprising Daniel Strasser, Helmut Zeilner and Markus Obereder, the latter-named coming from the ranks of the band’s reed section where he showed his prowess and dexterity on baritone saxophone. Incidentally, Herr Obereder, a Salzburger, studied instrumental music education and choral/orchestra conducting at the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg and at Louisiana State University.

The concert brilliantly took off, putting the audience in an upbeat and festive mood with the appropriately named number Die Nacht ist nicht allein zum Schlafen da (The Night Wasn’t Made for Sleep) - indeed, it wasn’t - featuring vocalist Daniel Strasser who, incidentally, started his musical career as a trumpet player but changed to singing, studying at the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg and later in Vienna. He has been a member of Vienna’s Volksoper and sung such important roles for this company as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady and Vicomte Cascada, the Latin diplomat, in The Merry Widow.

The programme sustained its meteoric start by a superb rendering of In der Nacht ist der Mensch nicht gern alleine (At Night No One Wants To Be Alone), a most suitable piece for such an auspicious occasion.

Whilst Maestro Achatz - a flamboyant, suave and humorous character with an engaging manner and an act all to himself - conducted the orchestra for most of the programme, he offered the stage to the boys in the band when it came to the Big Band repertoire, not forgetting, of course, the accomplished and adorable pianist, Bori Kiss, who glittered on the keyboard as much as her dress glittered to the audience. The toe-tapping maestro was happily seen in the wings enjoying the performance as much as members of the audience were. 

Over the course of a wide-ranging programme, one was treated to such lovely and inviting hit numbers as Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin written in 1929 for the night revue, Hot Chocolates, Tiger Rag written in 1917 by Nick La Rocca, and Sweet Georgia Brown by Ben Bernie and Macco Pinkard dating from 1925. 

The hit list continued with a couple of well-loved numbers from the Duke Ellington Band thereby putting the icing on the cake for me with superb renderings of Take the A Train and Caravan written in 1936 by the Duke’s Puerto Rican trombonist, Juan Tizol, while A Train dating from 1941 was penned by the Duke’s long-time collaborator and arranger, Billy Strayhorn. 

And one number that truly rocked my boat, Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing, featured Peter Kronreif on that classic drum sequence made famous by Goodman’s long-serving drummer, Gene Krupa, who also played in the Benny Goodman Trio alongside pianist, Teddy Wilson, whom I had the great privilege of promoting at the Jacquard Club in Norwich which I owned with my blues-singing brother, Albert Cooper. 

Subsequently, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton made up the Benny Goodman Quartet. And, joyfully, I saw Hampton when he came to my home city of Norwich in the autumn of 1956 playing in St Andrew’s Hall. I was just 16 years of age and bent on jazz. Gladly, I still am.

Salzburg-born mezzo-soprano, Eva Hinterreithner - who completed her studies at the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg and at the Universität of Music and Performing Arts Vienna - coquettishly sang Cole Porter’s wonderful number Let’s Do It, while Helmut Zeilner - a specialist music teacher who trains singers and choir directors at the Musikum Salzburg and also the regional choir director of the Salzburg Choir Association - led the way in an audience participation number entitled Dort tanzt Lulu, ahaha, uhuhu (There Dances Lulu, ahaha, uhuhu) written by German-born composer, Will Meisel, who wrote over 50 film scores and ‘Lulu’ provided him with a big hit which was, indeed, a big hit with the audience. It even had me joining in the chorus line. Aha! 

All in all, the Ballaststofforchester put on a brilliant show to say adieu to the Old Year and ring in the New performed by a polished group of top-flight musicians and singers that delivered the goods in no uncertain manner. I knew there was more to Salzburg than Mozart! 

In stark contrast to the New Year’s Eve concert, the New Year’s Day affair - held in the spacious, comfortable and delightful surroundings of Salzburg’s Großes Festspielhaus in the heart of the Old Town - featured the Viennese-born violinist, Benjamin Schmid, soloist with the Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg under the baton of London-born conductor, Leo McFall.

A globe-trotting and well-respected violinist, Benjamin Schmid - who, I understand, harbours a remarkable skill in jazz improvisation - made his international breakthrough with a string of competition successes most notably with the 1992 Carl Flesch Competition in London. His repertoire is exceptionally broad and includes such rare violin concertos by the likes of Ligeti, Gulda, Korngold, Muthspiel, Szymanowski, Weill, Lutosławski and Reger in addition, of course, to the core repertoire.

Seemingly, Herr Schmid enjoys a fruitful relationship with Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg, an orchestra comprising a youthful and engaging group of players who work well under the baton of Oxford-educated musician, Leo McFall. 

Arguably, the great Niccoló Paganini from Genoa (who, incidentally, played a couple of times in my home city of Norwich) is widely known as the most brilliant violinist of his time. Herr Schmid from Vienna, I feel, now wears his crown, and he delivered as near perfect a reading as one could possibly get of the Second Violin Concerto penned by this iconic Italian violinist/composer. 

From the very first bar, he comfortably achieved a relaxed musical rapport with the conductor and orchestra while exciting the audience with some skilful acrobatic and fiery playing that showed his dexterity and technique of his chosen instrument that simply had one totally transfixed by his performance. 

And to give the audience a wave good-bye he played as an encore Paganini’s Caprice No.1 in E major, the first piece in a trail-blazing set of 24 caprices offering an unrelenting study in ricochet bowing which the audience lapped up and, of course, wanted more!

The concert, however, got off to a roaring and spirited start with the well-loved drum roll that ignites Rossini’s overture to The Thieving Magpie thereby providing an ‘opener’ highly suitable for a New Year’s Day concert, with the final offering being Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4 in A major (The Italian) thus completing the ‘Italian job’ to what I felt was a warm and fulfilling concert.

Mendelssohn conceived his Italian symphony while on the Grand Tour of Europe in 1829 and the Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg under Maestro McFall totally captured the atmosphere and essence of Mendelssohn’s distinctive writing, particularly in the flurry of the opening bars that mark the beginning of the work, with the orchestral playing truly invoking the colour, atmosphere and the overall joy of Italy, located in the middle of the deep-blue Mediterranean Sea. 

A remarkable performance, it will long be remembered.

A high-spirited packed house showed their roar of approval with an elongated applause. I felt, however, a trick was missed by not acknowledging the New Year by, say, a rendering of that magical piece, The Blue Danube, which would have surely complemented the overall picture of the concert dubbed ‘The Magic of Italy’.

As an aside, close by to the concert-hall, situated at Wiener Philharmoniker Gasse, is the well-appointed restaurant Triangel-Feinkost which I highly recommend. Franziska Gensbichler is the manager and also an accomplished pianist plus an aficionado of the music of Mozart. She told me that Mozart (the ‘wunderkind’ of Salzburg) taught at the old school building at the back of the restaurant. Such is the history of Salzburg. The restaurant’s a hot table, though, so booking is highly recommended or be ever-so-nice to Franziska on arrival. Guten appetit!

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