An evening of elegance and beautiful music.
Music usually comes in the flavor of the month, and today's stars are tomorrow's has beens (I think Destiny's Child may have found that point when getting booed off the court at the NBA finals). The lucky one's music continues on and remains popular for years, and only the best of the best have their music live on past their lifetime. Such is the case of Johann Strauss (father and son), and for George Gershwin. This commonality, along with the fact that Gershwin was a devotee of Strauss, is among the only reasons I can fathom for putting together a gala concert in tribute to them all at the same time. But in this salute from America to Vienna, they did just that on New Years at the dawn of the new century. Hosted by Gregory Peck, with numerous operatic stars and both the Vienna and Harlem Boys Choirs, this is an evening of instrumental, vocal, and choral greatness. This four star formal event has been captured for posterity by DVD International on a superb DVD, delivering both excellent video and terrific sound.
Facts of the Case
Johann Strauss, Sr. (1804-1849) is recognized as one of the first great "pop" stars of his day. The leading composer and conductor of dance music of the era, he went on to compose over 300 works, and was known as one of the chief architects of the Viennese waltz.
Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899) is the acknowledged leader of light classical music of the 19th century. He carried on his father's tradition and made the waltz an orchestral event besides serving as dance music. He is best known for his waltzes, especially "The Blue Danube" but also composed operettas, the best known being Die Fledermaus, a comic farce of illicit affairs and decadence.
George Gershwin (1898-1937) wrote the song that would become his first hit "Swanee" at age 19, and went on to bring jazz-infused rhythms into orchestral music. He went on to write musicals for Broadway, including "Girl Crazy" with the popular standard "I've Got Rhythm" and "Porgy and Bess," written as a full opera but was made into a Broadway show. He died at age 38 from a brain tumor, cutting his life tragically short. "Porgy and Bess" only achieved true popularity and became a classic after his death.
The Strauss-Festival-Orchestra is devoted to performing historically authentic arrangements of Viennese music. Since 1978, conductor Peter Guth, a renown expert on Strauss, has toured and been seen all over the world. Like Strauss, he often leads the orchestra while playing the violin, sometimes using the same violin used by the old master.
I usually jump right to the program when I write a review, but I'll begin by complimenting the fine liner notes packaged with this DVD. The biographical information above came largely from those notes, and information on the music and the people performing on each track is listed. These are the best liner notes I believe I've ever seen with a DVD, and is a terrific source of information.
So let's get to the program. After a quick introductory polka, the show really begins when Gregory Peck takes the stage to make the introductions. His genteel manner and bearing add a great deal to the festivities, as he gives eloquent introductions to the music and even performs with the orchestra during Aaron Copland's "Portrait of Lincoln," speaking quotes from the great president to the music. Copland is one of several other artists given some tribute besides the main composers. Of course, he was a contemporary of Gershwin.
Various pieces from Strauss, both father and son, make up the bulk of the music performed, with several operatic stars performing vocals: Martina Serafin, Eva Lind, Paul Groves, Herbert Lippert, Elizabeth Norman, and Georg Lehner. Both the Vienna Choir Boys (I thought the title should have been Vienna Boys Choir, but that's what they're called) and the Harlem Boys Choir provide backup vocals and perform without the opera singers on some selections. What a terrific way of highlighting the America meets Vienna theme of the gala.
Things start to heat up mid-way through the show when the music turns to Gershwin. My favorite selection of the program was the Gershwin melody for clarinet and orchestra, performed by clarinet maestro Henry Cuesta. This jazz number really hopped, and I can honestly say I've never heard a clarinet sound like that. I was tremendously impressed. Other Gershwin standards follow, then the final act of the program comes back to Strauss, with the Blue Danube Waltz, followed by the Champagne Finale from Die Fledermaus and the Radetzky March, which is the traditional ending of the Vienna New Years concert.
I was thoroughly impressed by the performances all around. The orchestra, the individual singers, and both choirs were simply flawless. I also have to mention the beauty of the Musikberein, the 130 year old concert hall located in Vienna. It smacks of old world elegance, with the only complaint being the stage was too crowded for the size of the orchestra.
By this point you've either stopped reading because this music doesn't appeal to you, or you still have some interest. If light classical and jazz are music styles you enjoy, then you will love this DVD. The full frame picture (this was produced for live television broadcast originally) is exceptionally clear and sharp. Colors are sharp, the print is flawless, and there are no complaints. Of course, what you really want to know on a concert DVD is the quality of the sound. I have high praise in this department too, with both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks offered. Both tracks are outstanding. All channels spring out with the music, clearly and with a high degree of fidelity. The soundstage is deep and wide, and very spacious. The only real difference between the tracks was the inherent volume boost given to DTS. Either track will please the discriminating listener.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Obviously, your enjoyment of the DVD will depend upon your musical tastes, though people not familiar with the work of Strauss or Gershwin can use this disc to fill in the gap of their musical knowledge. I'll confess my own tastes don't normally run in this direction; I generally prefer other composers and my knowledge of Broadway show tunes is spotty at best. Still, I was impressed, so fans of light classical or Gershwin will enjoy it even more.
The extra content is slight but I'll give them a break because of the excellent liner notes, which is worth more than a lot of "making of" promo fluff features. Previews of several DVD International discs are the only other bonus, including StarGaze, Video Essentials, and Naxos Musical Journey discs.
If this type of music remotely interests you than I highly recommend this DVD. Whether you purchase or rent it you should not be disappointed.
Acquitted…no, rather charges are dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: DVD International
• Liner Notes
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