New Year Viennese Gala

The Ulster Orchestra recreate some of the 'zap and playfulness' of the original Strauss concerts

It was, once upon a time, considered dangerous, sexy music. The slinky waltz rhythms positively encouraged couples to get down and dirty, aristo-fashion.

Strutting marches and zippy polkas set the blood racing, and champagne fuelled the revelry, drawing the opprobrium of Vienna's moral majority and the church authorities.

It was the music of the Strauss dynasty, specifically that of Johann Strauss II, the 'Waltz King', which blazed such a dizzy trail across the ballrooms and dance floors of 19th century Europe.

Nowadays Strauss family music is familiar mostly through the annual telecast of the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna, where a well-heeled audience in stuffed shirts and spangled jewellery projects an image distanced from the racy, edgier environment in which the ‘Waltz King’ plied his trade.

Some of the zap and playfulness originally associated with Johann Strauss II’s own concerts was recreated at the Ulster Orchestra’s New Year Viennese Gala at the Waterfront Hall to help bring 2012 in with a bang.

Strauss himself directed his orchestras while playing along on violin with them. Belfast-born Christopher Bell uses a baton most of the time, abandoning it at strategic moments to quaff champagne, choreograph audience clap-alongs, and become one of the few (perhaps the only?) conductor in orchestral history to dance a solo can-can (twice) from the podium, while the orchestra whip up Offenbach’s overture to Orpheus in the Underworld.

A succession of ever blingier costume changes, an easy line in ready banter, and some deftly informative spoken segues between the musical items make Bell an ideal front-man for an evening designed to entertain and energise, rather than prompt deeper reflection.

Musically, Bell acquits himself more than adequately. Occasionally, however, he spends too much time with nose in score for less familiar items, allowing the orchestra to cruise a little and blur the sharp, incisive attack Strauss needs to effervesce properly in performance.

Some of his tempos also drag a little in waltz episodes, creating an episodic feel disguised by great interpreters of this repertoire like Clemens Krauss or Carlos Kleiber.

Yet Bell draws responsive playing from the Ulster Orchestra, who might perhaps have been prevailed upon to look a little more like they too were enjoying themselves performing this marvellously colourful and zesty music.

Mezzo-soprano Rachael Lloyd (mic'd up, which won’t have pleased operatic purists) performs a series of delightfully characterised solos from operettas by Strauss, Offenbach and Lehár. Her whoops, yelps and tipsy slurring during Offenbach’s ‘Ah! Quel dîner je viens de faire’ are especially effective.

Extended stagefront cameo appearances by Camilla Dallerup and Ian Waite, both multi-series veterans of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, are further highlights.

Performing mainly waltzes (though they also tango slinkily to Piazzolla’s 'Libertango'), they provide an intriguing flashback to the elegant, dashing ballrooms of Old Vienna, where Strauss’s music was routinely danced to, not played as concert pieces to a seated auditorium.

The magically reflective coda to 'The Blue Danube Waltz' is inexplicably omitted (cue minor temper tantrum on the part of your reviewer), and the dampening effect of the ungrateful Waterfront acoustic occasionally drains the upper strings of bloom and shimmer.

But overall this is a joyful and life-affirming evening, warmly applauded and appreciated by a capacity audience. ‘Prosit Neujahr!’ as they say at this time of year in Vienna.

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