Vienna Philharmonic continues despite pandemic restrictions


When the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra concludes its New Year’s concert on the first day of 2021, no one will be in the audience to cheer.

Normally, some 50,000 people request annual tradition tickets. But this year, the seats in the large frescoed hall of the Musikverein will be empty for the first time since the event. started in 1939, due to the pandemic.

However, the orchestra finds a favorable audience from a distance. Seven thousand people from up to 90 countries have registered to send audio broadcasts of themselves clapping from their homes.

“We must have hope,” said Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, who will conduct the concert for the sixth time. “The Musikverein for the first time without music on January 1 would be like a grave, it would be the worst sign, a negative sign for the whole world.

This concert, which includes a lineup of waltzes and polkas by Viennese composer Johann Strauss Jr, typically attracts an audience of around 50 million people and has become a symbol of Austria and the cultural significance of its capital.

The Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Riccardo Muti rehearses for the 2021 New Year’s concert © Dieter Nagl / Wiener Philharmoniker

“The music we play has allowed us to go through so many crises,” said Daniel Froschauer, Principal Violinist of the Philharmonic.

Performances such as the New Year’s concert were able to continue in part thanks to generous emergency support for the arts. The Austrian Federal Government has provided 220 million euros in addition to its regular cultural budget of 466 million euros to support artists and cultural organizations. The government has also reduced value-added taxes for the cultural sector and offered access to Short-term work leave assistance program, film-making grants, coupons for canceled events, and replacement of sales lost during the lockdown.

Many of the greatest classical musicians, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Gustav Mahler, have lived and worked in Vienna, so the genre is important to Austria. In the early months of the pandemic, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz made a personal commitment to supporting the necessary conditions for performances, said Froschauer, who is also chairman of the board of directors of the Vienna Philharmonic. Classical music is a great attraction for tourism, a sector which accounts for 6.5% of gross domestic product. The creative sector employs around 5 percent of the workforce.

Ahead of the New Year’s Day concert, musicians and staff go through a regimen of daily Covid-19 testing before entering the golden halls of the Musikverein. Although live audiences are banned until at least January 6, Mr Froschauer said: “We feel privileged to be able to play, and we do it with the mindset that we know so many people don’t. can’t.

Guests wear masks before the Midsummer Night concert at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna in September © Christian Bruna / EPA-EFE

Austria has successfully hosted several major cultural events in 2020, including the 100th Salzburger Festspiele, an annual month-long theater, music and opera festival that took place with socially distanced headquarters and regular Covid tests for performers. It sold 76,000 tickets and organizers said no Covid-19 infection could be attributed to it.

Other Austrian venues have also tried to keep the doors open, at least for artists. The Porgy and Bess jazz club in central Vienna’s first district converted most of its winter program to live online concerts where viewers could pay whatever they wanted. Often the shows have attracted a much larger audience than the club’s capacity.

“We want to send a signal that we are not giving up because of the virus,” said artistic director Christoph Huber, noting that his club’s ability to host concerts and continue to pay musicians – through a combination of state and public support – was scarce. .

Mr Froschauer, who studied music at the Juilliard School in New York, said European cultural workers were lucky about the “horror scenario” in America.

The United States had a record number of deaths from Covid-19 in December and does not have a strong social safety net for artists. More than half of actors and dancers, and nearly a third of musicians, are unemployed, according to the United States National Endowment for the Arts.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performs at Schönbrunn Palace in September © Georg Hochmuth / APA / AFP

But while Austrian orchestras and other high-profile arts organizations have received substantial state support, many cultural workers, especially young freelancers, are struggling.

In May, Culture Minister Ulrike Lunacek resigned, saying she had not received enough resources to help culture workers. “It’s not worthy of one of the richest countries in the world,” she said.

Baritone singer Marko Trojanovski, 26, who has lived in Vienna for eight years, saw so many performances canceled in 2020 that he had to take a job selling jeans at a new clothing store.

His partner, composer Oskar Gigele, also 26, is concerned about the long-term effects of the pandemic on opportunities in the performing arts for young people.

“This crisis is brightening up this generation – people are giving up. . . If you don’t have a job yet, you don’t have a chance to go anywhere or get funding, ”he said. “There is no more money at the moment.”

Even for historic institutions such as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – which survived the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, annexation by Nazi Germany and the ravages of World War II – the future is uncertain.

The Philharmonie traveled to Japan in November for a 10-day tour, but plans for a major US tour in 2021 have been postponed indefinitely. Visits are important to income, and Mr Froschauer said the group plans to travel to China and elsewhere in Asia instead, where Covid-19 cases are much lower.

“We usually plan three years in advance, but now it’s about two weeks,” he said.

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