Open to all on New Year's Eve
Not much virtue but plenty of devilry
New Year's Eve is the time for year-end concerts. But we needn't always traipse into the coming year to the strains of Die Fledermaus, whether in our palatial opera houses or from our panoramic home-entertain centres. Nor does it always have to be Beethoven's Ninth that bears us aloft to the starry firmament every January 1st as ash and debris drizzle down from the latest outbursts of pyrotechnic mass hysteria. Year after year the Vienna Philharmonic remain true to their dynasties of dance composers, mainly Johann Strauss père and his three sons. And every year the Viennese find a great and renowned maestro - sometimes new and unexpected, sometimes familiar to all and sundry - to ascend the conductor's platform in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein. Variety is their watchword; as is cosmopolitanism.
Things are a bit different with the Berliner Philharmoniker, whose New Year's Eve concerts were sometimes held on New Year's Day. It was on 1 January 1946, the first opportunity after the end of the war, that Sergiu Celibidache signalled the start of the new year in Titania Palace in Berlin's Steglitz district. Ever since 1958, when Herbert von Karajan conducted his first New Year's Eve concert, it has been de rigueur in Berlin to ring out the old year and let others handle the new. The programme Karajan chose that year - Stravinsky and Bruckner - was anything but bland. But neither was it unique: on other New Year's Eve programmes he tested his audiences with Mahler and Schoenberg, Penderecki and Nono.
The first Celibidache concerts already showed what was in store: end-of-year performances of the Berliner Philharmoniker were to be strictly left to the boss. Karajan, barring initial exceptions, exercised this musical droit de seigneur with rare interruptions from 1958 to 1988. Up to now the successors to his throne - Claudio Abbado (from 1991) and Simon Rattle (from 2002) - have followed his example. But 2010 once again proves to be an exception: this time Gustavo Dudamel moves to the helm of the Philharmonic for the year-end concert with a Hispano-French programme which, if the weather were warmer, would suit an outdoor venue. Indeed, it was in just such a venue, the Waldbühne, that this head of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the world-famous Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2008 with a programme of Spanish and Latin American music, sending 22,000 listeners into transports of collective delight - and the orchestra into its summer break.
Elina Garanca, a mezzo-soprano from Riga, the capital of Latvia, is the evening's female star. She has the pleasure of lending a voice to some of the concert's imaginary heroines - clandestine daemons whose spellbinding attraction no man can escape. And they seem to be tailor-made to suit her voice and personality.
A closer look reveals that women play the main roles in every part of this New Year's Eve programme. All are beautiful to a fault but, as it happens, most are seductresses, devils, vampires or phantoms. Only Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture offers a blameless exception in the form of Teresa, the lover of Benvenuto Cellini. But Teresa only had to sing in the opera, which preceded the overture by several years and failed miserably in Paris in 1838. At least Berlioz salvaged a few of its musical ideas for the concert hall, compressing the motivic material of the failed opera into a brilliant orchestral piece that provoked storms of raucous applause from the audience at its premiere. At the end of our concert the lovely Maid of the Mill will preserve her honour and decorum in Manuel de Falla's ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, resisting the advances of the amorous Provincial Governor and defusing the jealousy of her husband, the irate Miller.
But then come the operatic episodes! Don't be deceived by the tearful yearnings of Marguerite, whose romance "D'amour l'ardente flamme" matches Gretchen's famous lines of burgeoning love from Goethe's Faust. Her song sounds like the deathly despondent elegy of a woman abandoned and desperate. But Marguerite was only a tool, a hallucination conjured up by Mephistophélès to lure Faust to his perdition. As he sets out on his gruesome ride to eternal damnation, she celebrates her apotheosis in the heavenly heights.
Samson was singled out by Jehovah to lead the people of Israel to victory in their struggle for liberation against the hostile Philistines. God equipped him with superhuman strength - but unfortunately also with an untamable weakness: he can't resist women. Delilah, a lovely Philistine, marshals all her erotic charms and patriotic ambition to tempt the easily seduced man into her trap. She robs him of the magnificent head of hair that lent him his legendary strength and invincibility - after which she does the same to his eyesight. Israel again descends into abject slavery; the Philistines think they have every reason to hold a feast in their temple, at the foot of their god Dagon. But the denouement takes them by surprise: they neglected to cut the prisoner's hair!
Finally comes Carmen, the irrepressible gypsy girl who ensnares the stolid sergeant Don José with a superfluity of erotic magnetism. But she fails to channel her feelings in the direction of eternity. She knows that what she calls "freedom" will only spell her own doom.
Karl Dietrich Gräwe