For Vienna Philharmonic, 2020 Was a Year to ‘Be Pioneers’


At a time when many orchestras are waiting in the wings, the Vienna Philharmonic has defied the odds.

In November, the orchestra embarked on a tour of Japan, performing to full halls in Tokyo, Osaka, Kawasaki and Fukuoka. They returned home to a lockdown, but they have continued to rehearse and record uninterrupted.

Earlier this month, the orchestra joined the conductor Christian Thielemann for Bruckner’s Third Symphony — kicking off a cycle of the composer’s nine symphonies — in a performance that was recorded for radio, national television and streaming. A few days later, the musicians were rehearsing a Strauss and Webern program under Zubin Mehta that was broadcast on the same channels.

While broadcast media and the internet have provided a lifeline this year, the chairman, Daniel Froschauer, and the general manager, Michael Bladerer, have been uncompromising about the need to preserve the Philharmonic’s sound culture. By June, they had earned permission from the federal government to play for audiences of 100 at the Musikverein. And they continued to give live concerts this fall.

Despite a proposal to distribute rapid tests and present the New Year’s Concert for an in-person audience, government regulations outlawing concerts through Jan. 7 require that it become exclusively a televised event. To simulate the festive atmosphere under traditional circumstances, the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation has created an online platform where listeners can upload audio samples of their applause and photos “live from the living room.”

The annual event features Riccardo Muti on the podium for the sixth time. Meanwhile, the 148-member orchestra has separated itself into two pools of musicians — one that performs for streaming and televised events at the opera, another for the New Year’s Concert — to better monitor musicians’ potential contact with the coronavirus.

Mr. Froschauer said that the Philharmonic was working with the broadcaster to ensure that the concert would send out “a positive signal” to the estimated 30 million viewers who tune in, so that they can “forget their worries and can welcome the new year in beauty.”

In a recent interview, Mr. Froschauer and Mr. Bladerer talked about their commitment to pushing through live concerts in 2020 and looked ahead to next year. The following conversation has been translated from German, edited and condensed.

During the first lockdown, while some orchestras broke down into chamber music formations and played for livestreaming, you announced that you would either appear as a full orchestra or not at all. Why was this so important?

DANIEL FROSCHAUER The Philharmonic defines itself through quality. It was important to us that even if the Vienna Philharmonic could only play for a small audience, the few listeners could say, “That’s our Philharmonic, that’s how they sound.” That’s why we developed our own safety concept, whereby we were tested before each project.

MICHAEL BLADERER The tests were much more expensive in the beginning. Now, we have the antigen rapid tests, which are relatively affordable. But at the time, we were willing to invest so that we could play without distancing.

You nevertheless needed government support to push through plans.

FROSCHAUER We asked ourselves how we could help — and not lean back and demand money. We ran a test about aerosol emissions and sent it to the health minister. Then I called our chancellor and said, we don’t understand that it is possible to play soccer but we can’t play. He laughed and said he would put it at the top of his list.

Do institutions send the wrong signal if they wait for a vaccine?

FROSCHAUER What I see lacking is a spirit of pioneering. The Vienna Philharmonic doesn’t only want to be the best on the stage. We want to be pioneers. We traveled to Japan in this spirit. But not for economic reasons. We showed that it is possible. We were tested every third day.

BLADERER It was also a very difficult time. We had a special permit that allowed us to play concerts but nothing else. We were allowed only to be in the hotel and travel to the concert hall with buses. Otherwise, we couldn’t move a meter outside.

We had our own charter plane, and Austrian Airlines agreed to have the entire crew tested. We nonetheless all had to wear masks throughout the entire flight.

We were even in quarantine for a day at a hotel in Vienna before we left. We had a P.C.R. test the next morning, and every one of us waited for the result in his or her room for a whole day.

There was one positive case, which very much shocked us because it was totally unexpected. We were afraid that the trip ended before it began. We reported it directly to the Japanese authorities and removed everyone who had come into contact with the player.

FROSCHAUER We could immediately isolate the people in question. After our arrival, we had another P.C.R. test, and everyone was negative. That was the goal.

Meanwhile, you embarked for Japan the day after the terrorist attack in Vienna last month, when four people died in a shooting.

FROSCHAUER The more the Japan tour approached, the more difficult the situation became. We dedicated our first concert with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony to victims of the attack and then in Tokyo to everyone who has suffered from the coronavirus. The audience was incredibly thankful. They couldn’t yell out but held up signs.

BLADERER Daniel asked for one minute of silence. We brought the performance to a close very softly — in the contrabasses, we didn’t know if we were playing or not. The light in the hall was dimmed to a minimum, and it was deathly quiet, which was very stirring.

What concerts are planned for the coming months?

FROSCHAUER Next year, we are celebrating Muti’s 80th birthday. I shouldn’t say it out loud — he looks 60 — but he has conducted our orchestra for 50 years. We have a big Europe tour planned in May — which we hope will take place — and the Salzburg Festival and a tour to Asia.

What defines the Philharmonic’s relationship to Muti?

FROSCHAUER He has an absolute affinity to our sound. He always says that when he first came in the ’70s, he learned so much from our orchestra. Now we are three generations further along, and he somehow gives back what he learned. I have experienced some of the most beautiful moments onstage that one can [with him] — and I am very grateful for that.


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